Prelude to a Kiss

Ghost & Spice Productions
At Common Ground Theatre
Through Jan. 23

People have been swapping souls and borrowing bodies forever, it seems; the origins of such beliefs trace through folk cultures the world over, several millennia before they ultimately found regular employment in horror fiction.

In more recent decades, a few new twists have emerged. Within the past year, high-tech variations on the theme have driven two major motion pictures: the James Cameron blockbuster Avatar, as well as last summer’s more problematic vehicle for Paul Giamatti, Cold Souls.

But perhaps its pop culture high-water mark came in the mid-1980s, when the channeling craze of what was called the new age movement turned the transmigration of souls into more of a local commute to work for dozens of self-styled spiritual advisors like J.Z. Knight and her, um, special guest, Ramtha.

Craig Lucas’ Prelude to a Kiss dates back to that era, a 1988 play whose yearlong run on Broadway predated its adaptation into a 1992 movie with Meg Ryan and Alec Baldwin. The innovation in this romantic comedy comes when a kiss at a wedding causes Rita, the somewhat scattered bride, to swap souls with a total stranger, an aged, sickly gate-crasher named Julius. At first, no one but them is aware that the trade has taken place, but as she evinces Julius’ personality traits during her honeymoon with her husband, Peter, he gradually becomes aware of the switcheroo. Tracking down the real Rita, now trapped in the body of Julius, and then finding a way to reverse the change are the dilemmas of this Prelude‘s second act.

This Ghost and Spice production, the regional theater’s first offering of the new decade, scintillates with strong performances among the three leads. In its opening passages, Melissa Lozoff as Rita and Tony Hughes as Peter both agonizeadorably, it must be saidthrough the small-talk absurdities of a late-night party, which precedes a gauntlet of similarly awkward moments as their relationship develops.

But the real acting challenge here involves situating two very different characters in the same body, as Rita and Julius have to do. Under Rachel Klem’s direction, Lozoff proves more than up to the challenge. First they establish a distinctive, believable movement vocabulary, gestures and mannerisms for Rita. Then they come up with different ones for her unwitting guest in Act 2, who, for all his explorations, never quite figures out what to do with a woman’s body.

For his part, veteran actor Jordan Smith convinces in his return to the regional stage as the traveling man, so to speak, in this equation. His Julius bears Smith’s trademark aplomb and economy.

In supporting roles, John Honeycutt finds another sweet, heart-melting role as Rita’s dad, Marshall, while Martha Brown gently cracks the whipfor the most partas his wife, Marion. An amused Geraud Staton ably takes on Taylor, Peter’s trickster of an office colleaguewho fortunately doubles as a minister in the Universal Life Church when it’s time for a wedding. Michelle Byars fills out the grace notes along the edges of several brief scenes, in a fine, funny, romantic show for a long winter’s night.