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A Curse on a Kiss

Performers better than production values

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After a string of hits that included Never the Sinner, Stop Kiss and [Sic], the intrepid guerrillas at Off-Tryon Theatre Company have hit the wall -- from a budgetary standpoint, anyway. Jeremy Cartee and Kristen Jones have plenty of ardent chemistry as the lovebirds in Craig Lucas' Prelude to a Kiss. But there's scant production value behind them.The bar where Rita Boyle plies her day job doesn't deserve to be called a piece of furniture. Yet it serves double duty as the chief ornament at Rita's wedding when she marries Peter Hoskins. If you remember the fairytale plot from the movie, that's where a total stranger intrudes, kisses the bride, and expels Rita's soul from her body, taking her place.

Exactly what you should expect if you hold the ceremony in an abandoned cellar.

Jonathan Ewart makes his directorial debut with Prelude -- and probably his set-designing bow. He needs to liven up his static approach to directing with more movement from his cast, and we hope he'll hand over future designing chores to a professional. Or even a promising amateur.

It can't be easy for developing actors to portray a person invaded by a soul of the opposite sex who's a half century older or younger than they are. Jones as Rita and Phil Taylor as Old Man Becker don't get sufficient guidance from Ewart when they're forced to make their great leaps. As Rita's beautifully scripted parents, Hugh Loomis and Meg Wood are overdone and off-target. Amid furnishings that look more like TV's The Honeymooners than a successful dentist's digs, there's a woeful comedown in class.

Amazingly, Cartee keeps the message in focus almost single-handedly as Peter. Because we're flesh and spirit, emotions and principles, we fall in love with a complete package. Cartee draws a nice difference between the discomfort Peter feels towards the Rita possessed by the Old Man and his initial revulsion toward the Old Man inhabited by Rita.

Riding along with Cartee's exquisite timing, his co-stars often look better amid their difficulties. And when Jones can simply be Peter's Rita, body and soul, the hormonal dance toward matrimony glows with spontaneity. Since there's a longer prelude to the magical kiss onstage than onscreen, that helps.

Downtown, PlayWorks' second summer season finished with the last of three readings in the SummerStage New Projects Festival. Scripts presented at Duke Power Playhouse ranged from a hastily scribbled first draft of a comedy, as yet untitled by Charlotte fave Judy Simpson Cook, to a dark Nazi-era drama that has already won a South Florida critics' award for best new work and received an Off-Broadway production.Despite a few pedestrian patches of dialogue, Simpson's comedy about the tribulations of a midlife playwright -- Menopplause or Menoplay would be logical titles -- was liberally spiced with theatrical experience, personal insight and commercial promise. Or it was until deep into Act 2. That's when playwright Charlotte Conner's family and neighbor are joined, in the wee hours of the night, by the cast and the director of her new script in searching for her doddering mother Dodo.

Just about everyone on hand had added to the torment of Charlotte's third-degree hot flashes. Her director had called an impromptu late-night rehearsal in her home after suggesting progressively sweeping revisions to her comedy that he continued to call "slight tweaks." Meanwhile, her cheerful husband Wilson was growing ridiculously goo-goo eyed over the director's slutty assistant. And just as Dodo's frequent disorientations are forcing the Conners to add her to their household, neighbor Fritzie finds her husband in flagrante delicto, leaves the louse, and joins the party.

All these tasty complications vanish with such speed that you have to conclude that Simpson hasn't really had the time to deal with them. She may as well have flown in a fairy with a magic wand and told her to say, "Poof!"

After our first glimpse of Cook's new comedy, we had a beautifully polished two-hander from Hal Corley, Brush the Summer By. Up in Lake Placid, New York, a sanctimonious divorcee encounters a sunbathing bartender within shouting distance of her broken-down tour bus. Needless to say, she doesn't shout. But after intermission, we learn that Perry has given Ellen a dose of AIDS.

With Ellen's smugness, I'd much rather have had her turn out to be the carrier. And Corley is so immersed in the pathos of the couple's plight that we never get a clear explanation how AIDS came upon them both unawares. If it were me, I'd want to know. Stellar performances by Rebecca Koon and Dean Whitworth, however, were sufficient evidence that Corley's drama already has strong appeal. Artfully spun with plenty of heart, Brush the Summer By is lacking only in audacity.

That wasn't a problem in Michael McKeever's The Garden of Hannah List. In this bold Nazi-era dramatic fantasy, our title character opposes The Third Reich by using Hitler Youth who knock on her door as fertilizer -- after shooting them point-blank in the head. A powerful response to a monstrous regime, killing 19 Nazi Party believers. But is it the right response?

A faithful servant helps bury the corpses in the garden. You wonder, after awhile, whether Kubicek's loyalty to his mistress is possibly akin to those Nazi henchmen who defend their acts as following orders. His answer: He's waging a just war.

On the other hand, there's Hannah's son Oskar. In stirring arguments, he condemns his mother's heartless actions. The difference between the Nazi solution and the Hannah solution, Oskar contends, is only the scale of the atrocity. Yet his response to the insanity swallowing up his fatherland is to obtain an exit visa and hop on a plane to America, where he intends to pursue a career.

You leave the theater measuring up Oskar's escape against Hannah's secret massacre. Good meaty stuff, the sort of evening that made me eager for SummerStage 2004.

I'm also expecting a return visit from The Mythmakers Theatre Company, whose production of The Little Prince blew into town last Thursday without creating so much as a blip on local theatergoers' radar. We didn't see the full company, hailing from Greenville, which is also touring with Medea and Tartuffe.What we did see was cherce. Clint Newman's Prince was aglow with wonderment and precocious wisdom. Tom Moglia was chameleonic as Antoine de Saint-Exupery's downed pilot -- and a zillion other odd roles. No less impressive were Miriam Silverman's nettlesome Rose and her slithery snake.

Despite the pathetic turnout, company reps seemed to like what they saw of Charlotte. So perhaps more of the company will roll in on their next visit. Hope so.

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