Imagine being told you have less than a year to live. Now imagine that, through a supernatural turn of events, you had been robbed of the previous several decades of your life just a few weeks earlier.
This blend of gut-punch realism and credulity-straining whimsy lies at the aching center of Craig Lucas's 1990 romantic fable "Prelude to a Kiss." A deft touch is required if the fanciful and the profound are to coexist — and that's just what director Daniel Sullivan provides in this bewitching revival. Even when the plot mechanics show their age, or when Mr. Lucas settles for an easy laugh, Mr. Sullivan and his extraordinarily nuanced cast conjure a modern-day fairy tale in which love and loss amplify each other with stinging melancholy.
Peter (Alan Tudyk), the play's narrator, is a genial but passive young man who works in science publishing and hasn't talked to his parents in years; he dives into a romance with Rita (Annie Parisse), a bartender with a terrible memory and a perpetual state of low-level anxiety. The two soon decide to get married, but the ensuing wedding, at the New Jersey home of Rita's supportive but prickly parents (James Rebhorn and Robin Bartlett, both terrific in minor roles), is punctuated by two worrisome events.
The first is a panicked pre-ceremony outburst by Rita, who's terrified at the prospect of loving someone enough to lose him. The second, far bigger (but not unrelated) disruption comes from Julius Becker (John Mahoney), a mysterious, courtly older man who crashes the wedding and asks to kiss the bride. This sets in motion a series of "Twilight Zone"-esque events that, while certainly otherworldly, are confronted by the three characters with dogged precision. Mr. Lucas's unexpectedly moving plot embroils the baffled trio in a fanciful amalgam of Rita's fears, Peter's unexamined assumptions, and Julius's hunger for a life that is wilting faster than Rita's dropped wedding bouquet.
In order for these plot twists to succeed, a few things must happen early on in "Prelude." The Peter-Rita courtship has to move at a decent clip — the plot doesn't really kick in until the wedding — but the play's emotional stakes hinge on the establishment of a plausible, engaging relationship. This is where Mr. Sullivan strikes gold: Mr. Tudyk and Ms. Parisse supply an effortless chemistry that neither slights nor sags under the characters' weaknesses. The physical desire they have for each other is apparent, but so are their small yet crucial differences in outlook. Mr. Tudyk is superb in the least flashy of the three main roles, letting the audience close but not too close, and if Ms. Parisse slightly overplays Rita's more coquettish qualities, this can be excused as a necessary precondition for the Act II developments.
This revival came into existence on the strength of Mr. Mahoney's cachet from more than a decade on TV's "Frasier," and Mr. Sullivan placates the audience early on with an extra glimpse or two of his shuffling character, who didn't appear in the original play until minutes before intermission. Except for one sitcom-friendly but unobjectionable flash of slapstick in Act II, Mr. Mahoney — whose sitcom success was predated by a long stage career in New York and Chicago — shows masterful restraint throughout, delineating two very different personalities with a minimum of outward display.
Despite transferring to Broadway in 1990 and running for more than a year, "Prelude" is typically remembered as a period piece, an AIDS parable masquerading as a romantic comedy. (The film adaptation from 1992 — back when Meg Ryan's cutesy shtick had just begun and before Alec Baldwin, the original Peter, had become a wholly plausible film actor — has done the play's reputation no favors.)
But the years have proven kind to "Prelude," thanks in part to Mr. Lucas's fresh look at the work. Any number of playwrights have run aground in recent years trying to modernize their earlier efforts — Eric Bogosian's leaden "subUrbia" revamp is the most egregious but by no means the only example. These writers would do well to check out Mr. Lucas's light-fingered ministrations here for a lesson in how to tweak the most topical material — a dramatically appropriate Internet joke here, a sunscreen reference there — without doing any harm.
Mr. Lucas has tackled AIDS in several subsequent works ("The Dying Gaul," the film "Longtime Companion"), and a same-sex kiss plays a pivotal role here, albeit a same-sex kiss between a man and a woman. (Trust me, it makes perfect sense on stage.) All the same, the play's presumed connection to AIDS seems somewhat blinkered almost 20 years later. "Prelude to a Kiss" can be interpreted just as easily as both a cautionary and a celebratory tale of marriage, as the "Company" of its time. A line from near the end of that musical springs to mind: "Don't be afraid it won't be perfect — the only thing to be afraid of, really, is that it won't be."
In a play that offers many of its sharpest lines to the peripheral characters, it's fitting that Rita's daffy mother encapsulates this complicated message with words that propel her daughter, her sonin-law, and their new companion toward the strange, sweet, and altogether wonderful final curtain. "They're never Rita," she tells Peter of his suddenly unrecognizable new bride, "not the way that you think they should be. They're always someone else. They're always changing. That's life. That's marriage."
Until April 22 (227 W. 42nd St., between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, 212-719-1300).