A good kiss, but not many sparks
By Scott Harrah
This revival of Craig Lucass 1990 romantic-comedy fantasy (which originally starred Alec Baldwin) has all the elements for a fresh, insightful twist on the typical boy-meets-girl story: an original concept, metaphysical commentary on life and love, and a suspenseful plot that is far from predictable. Even 17 years later, its statements on the timeless nature of love and relationships, and the lengths we will go to in order to hang on to our soul mate do not seem dated.
The show eventually became a staple in regional theaters across America and was made into an unsuccessful Hollywood film with Baldwin opposite Meg Ryan, who played the whimsical, quirky Rita. However, Ryan was not right for the role. In fact, few critics have ever found another actress that captured Ritas eccentric charm with the same aplomb as Mary-Louise Parker, who appeared in the original Broadway production. Like Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, the character of Rita is one of those crucial roles that can make or break a show depending on the casting of a multi-dimensional actress with an imposing stage presence. Annie Parisse, last seen on the New York stage in the ill-fated off-Broadway drama The Internationalist, may not have been the ideal choice for this production. Although Parisse does indeed exude Ritas bohemian essence, there is not much chemistry between her and the male lead, Peter (wonderfully played by Alan Tudyk). Parisse does a superb job of conveying Ritas idiosyncrasies, but she lacks the endearing comic kookiness Mary-Louise Parker had in the original.
Peter meets Rita at a party and is instantly captivated by her offbeat personality. A whirlwind courtship ensues, he proposes, and within a couple of months they get married at her parents home in New Jersey. A stranger, played with eerie zeal by the marvelous John Mahoney (the lovable father on the long-running TV sitcom Frasier), wanders in out of nowhere, walks up to Rita at her wedding reception and gives her a kiss.
Strange things occur as the happy newlyweds go on a honeymoon to Jamaica. Rita, who once proclaimed to Peter that she was a socialist, doesnt seem at all concerned when her husband comments on the abject poverty some of the natives are enduring in the island nation. She is a perpetual insomniac, but mysteriously has no trouble sleeping on her vacation. This is a woman that once favored liberal politics over material things and never was much of a jewelry fan, but she nonetheless charges an overpriced gold bracelet from the hotel shop to their bill. And even more odd, Rita who works as a bartender and normally loves liquor is not the least bit interested in drinking cocktails by the pool. At this point, Peter wonders why the recent nuptials have changed her so much. It is as if she has become an entirely different person.
Without spoiling the story too much, Rita has literally become someone else the old man at the party. In some sort of inexplicable, supernatural way, the old man and Rita exchanged souls when they kissed at the wedding reception. But before one thinks the story has become a highbrow version of the 1970s comedy Freaky Friday, the plot takes a serious turn when the couple returns to New York. Peter tells Ritas dentist dad, Dr. Boyle (James Rebhorn), that there is something wrong with the woman, but her father insists that women simply change once they marry. Her fathers inane explanation for the womans behavior seems especially unfounded when Rita leaves Peter and goes back to Jersey to live with her folks. As the plot unravels and Peter desperately tries to get his real wife back, we learn the real identity of the old man and why he chose to switch souls with a woman young enough to be his granddaughter.
The show features a minimal set that takes us from Manhattan to Englewood Cliffs, NJ to Jamaica and back, and there are no flashy special effects necessary to spin this modern urban fairy tale. Daniel Sullivans directing of the talented cast is nicely paced, and Mahoney is first-rate as always. However, one wonders just how much more potent the story would have been with a stronger leading lady to emit the necessary sparks onstage to make this production ring with the emotional veracity that is so pervasive in playwright Craig Lucass innovative, trenchant narrative.