Nothing—nothing—gets between Dr. Boyle and his legendary dental expertise. He can still yank your wisdom teeth and suck down a fifth of Stoli at the same time, just like in the old days, when he was raising his little girl. Her name's Rita, and she's living off a few bohemian twists of her own. She's a flaming Russian-style communist, can't drink enough Molson, rarely gets a decent night's sleep and recoils at the thought of bringing up kids in a world of such travail. They're from different genders and generations, but for better or worse, father and daughter cohabit exactly the same eccentric plane.
Boyle is a relatively minor figure in Prelude to a Kiss, the current piece at New Village Arts (NVA)—and that's actually the best thing about him. Playwright Craig Lucas has designed him to complement, not compete with, Rita's evolution; other secondary characters swirl about the action in the same way, with Lucas giving us just enough of them to breathe life into the principals. There's some extremely efficient writing in this thing, and that's ironic when you take the extremely fanciful moral into account: The trappings of romantic love may shift on a dime, but if that love is the real thing, nothing can deter the loyalty that fuels it. That's a little maudlin for some tastes (like mine), but the acting and production values make perfect sense here, and that translates into a fairly happy distraction from NVA.
By the seat of her pants, Rita (Kristianne Kurner) will court and marry the shy, sensitive Peter (Joshua Everett Johnson), whose own quirky values led him to live in Amsterdam at age 16. The wedding is uneventful until an Old Man (Charlie Riendeau), thought to be an uninvited guest, will impart some words of wisdom to the couple and plant a kiss on Rita's lips. A mystical journey ensues, turning the couple into strangers overnight. The hapless Rita—now suddenly button-down to the core and spouting hints about having children—is at the center of a change of identity.
Peter must find the Old Man while learning to love the spirit that now inhabits Rita.
Lucas, who's gay, wrote this play in 1988 as AIDS claimed the minds and bodies of thousands of same-sex lovers. Many critics seized on what they thought were parallels between AIDS and Rita's transformation—but try as I might, I just don't see the metaphor in this case. For one thing, Kurner is an exceptionally beautiful woman, who would have fared disastrously in trying to make Rita all that manly. Take a look at Esther Emery's set design as well. It features a series of oversize curlicues that daintily come to rest over segments of the action like so many mobiles designed for babies. There's hardly a hint of terminal illness in that approach, unless colic has suddenly vaulted to the top among causes of same-sex adult mortality.
I thought the trappings for the wedding ceremony were a little ostentatious, as crazy Rita would have been just as happy sealing the deal in front of a justice of the peace (and she probably doesn't have that many friends to invite anyway). Beyond that, director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg—who's becoming so adept at using the physical stage as a development tool—sees this play for just what it is. It's a lean, fanciful look at romantic obligations no matter their cost. AIDS may have been Lucas' inspiration, but it certainly wasn't the thrust of his message. This review is based on the matinée production of April 20. Prelude to a Kiss runs through May 18 at New Village Arts Theatre, 2787-B State St., Carlsbad. $22-$26. 760-433-3245 or www.newvillagearts.org.