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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.

Larry Belkin, a South Florida actor with New York stage and soap opera credits, plays Harelik with sincerity and range both in Yiddish (for the first fifteen minutes) and English. Barbara Bradshaw, a four-time Carbonell winner, brings a boundless heart to Ima Perry, while another stage and soap veteran, Jim Cordes, does a very impressive job as the blustering Milton, especially in Act Two. Judith Townsend, also a Carbonell winner, re-creates the role of Leah that she played in the Palm Beach production two years ago, with the right blend of naivete

and wisdom.
Anyone who has an immigrant in the family -- and for Americans, that's just about everyone -- will find sentimental strings pulled by the tale, and the characters hard to forget. "Travel light and don't bring more than you can carry at one time," Haskell writes to Leah, who arrives in a strange land with only two silver candlesticks. Starting off with so little, the couple was to build an American dream that now includes one gifted playwright.

PRELUDE TO A KISS
Written by Craig Lucas, directed by Juan F. Cejas; with Kim Ostrenko, Robert J. Lowery, James Baldwin, Beverly Bessoner, Bill Yule, Carol Cadby, Peter Paul deLeo, Roger Martin, Ellen Wacher, and David Silverthorn. Held over at the Colony Theatre, 1040 Lincoln Road Mall, Miami Beach, through December 13. Performances tonight, tomorrow, and Friday at 8:15 p.m. Tickets cost $15-17, with discounts for students and seniors; call 372-1718 for more information.

THE IMMIGRANT: A HAMILTON COUNTY ALBUM
Written by Mark Harelik, directed by J. Barry Lewis; with Larry Belkin, Barbara Bradshaw, Judith Townsend, and Jim Cordes. At Brian C. Smith's Off Broadway Theatre, 1444 NE 26th St, Ft Lauderdale, through December 31. Evening performances Wednesday -- Saturday at 8:00 p.m.; matinees Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. Tickets cost $20-25 with discount plans available; call 566-0554 for more information.


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