Strangers in a Strange Land

Rita and Peter, New York singles tentatively looking for love, find each other at a friend's garden party, pursue a relationship, and marry after only six weeks. But at the wedding, an old lush kisses Rita and transacts a soul switch, leaving Peter with a stranger in his bed and a big question in his mind about the institution of matrimony.

Suddenly Rita the socialist doesn't give a damn about the starving people in Jamaica, her insecurities disappear in the bluster of macho assertiveness, and she can't recall important details about her

life -- such as what her father does for a living. Peter is suspicious, but at first wonders if his friends and family are right, that marriage changes everything.

Can the essence of true love triumph? Will the newlyweds find each other again, in the right bodies? These are the conflicts resolved with light humor and great charm in Craig Lucas's adult fairy tale, Prelude to a Kiss. The playwright, who also authored the yuppie drama Blue Window and the deeply moving film about love in the age of AIDS, Longtime Companion, uses dialogue and characterizations so effectively he can make even the slimmest plot line entertaining.

Still, this highly commercial play, nominated for a couple of Tony Awards, is a different choice for the ACME Acting Company, which is presenting it at the Colony Theatre. ACME was conceived five years ago by director Juan Cejas and companions, with a Hialeah production of Lanford Wilson's Balm In Gilead. After spending one year in the Design District, the company moved to The Strand restaurant, where it stylishly produced two successful seasons of contemporary dramatic art, ranging from original works by local playwrights to challenging material such as John Patrick Shanley's Savage in Limbo. In August, however, ACME was forced by new owners to vacate its small space in The Strand, and so embarked on a furtive hunt for a home. The company's found one at the 400-seat Colony, where it'll be mounting another play next year and a full season of shows during the 1992-93 season.

With the move to the Colony comes a switch to frothier fare, if Prelude is an example of ACME's future. The work is constantly engaging and the production worthy of any Broadway house, but it's ultimately a light offering, closer to Neil Simon than Shanley. Of course, there's nothing wrong with delightful entertainment; it's just odd to see ACME doing it, and doing it so heartilty.

Juan Cejas has directed with imagination and simplicity, leaving strong characters to rule the stage. The castle-wall set by Mark Beaumont provides an enchanting constant and the lighting by Betsy P. Cardwell appears gentle enough, but the highlight of the production is ACME's trademark -- an excellent ensemble of actors. Particularly outstanding is Kim Ostrenko as Rita, who starts off seductive and girlish, then performs a skillful switch into the old man, while Beverly Bessoner and Bill Yule are wonderful as her parents, a true-to-life bickering couple with all the requisite idiosyncrasies. James Baldwin's Peter tends to sound one note through the first act -- goofy -- but by the second half, he projects a wider range, from despair to deep affection.

Prelude to a Kiss examines, on the surface, the wisdom of age versus the vibrancy of youth, and the enduring link of love, but it's not meant as thought-provoking drama any more than as side-splitting comedy. Instead, the play is a pleasant ditty given a first-class production. For pure enjoyment's sake, and to see ACME's actors at their best, it's worth a visit. The play, which originally was scheduled to run from November 27 through today, has been held over through this Friday, December 13.

If Peter suddenly finds himself in a world of strangers by accident, Haskell Harelik consciously chooses an alien landscape in his search for freedom. Arriving in the tiny agricultural town of Hamilton, Texas, circa 1909 (population 1200, mainly Baptist), the young Russian refugee speaks only Yiddish as he drags his pushcart of bananas around the community, seeking a new life.

He finds it via Milton and Ima Perry, the crusty town banker and his compassionate, Christian wife. They literally find Haskell on their doorstep and figuratively adopt him, helping him to prosper both personally and professionally. Eventually, Haskell brings over his pregnant wife Leah, who at first dreads life in a world of non-Kosher food and non-Jews, but through the Perrys learns to cherish her new home.

Mark Harelik wrote The Immigrant: A Hamilton County Album about his own grandfather, and real scenes from Haskell's life are used as a backdrop for the action. This moving piece is given a flawless production at Brian C. Smith's Off-Broadway Theatre. With the suitably atmospheric help of warm lighting, homey sets, and a technically perfect slide show (all designed and run by Jay Tompkins), the audience follows both the Perrys and the Hareliks through several decades, as Haskell becomes a successful American merchant, Leah a contented wife and mother, and both couples learn that cultural differences dissolve in the face of enduring friendship.

J. Barry Lewis's direction moves the history along at an appropriate pace, never lingering too long on an event, but also not discounting the small gestures and conflicts that constitute a man's life. The viewer effortlessly grows to love this immigrant as much as his grandson obviously did, thanks to an affectionate but nonetheless engaging tribute to one man's courage and determination.

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