The problem is the broad satirical style of the ensemble — it gets easy laughs but soon grows wearisome. Fortunately, in the first act, the production is grounded by the performances of the four leading actors: Bobbie Steinbach as Flavius, Will Lyman as Apemantus, Daniel Berger-Jones as Alcibiades (whose best scene is the one where his loyalty gets him exiled), and especially Allyn Burrows as Timon. And in the second act — when the visual theatrics disappear (the set shifts into absurdist minimalism, with a pair of spare trees and the sandbox standing in for Timon’s cave) and the ensemble remain mostly off stage — the play becomes a tour de force for Burrows, raging in underwear and a torn, grimy shirt. In his exploration of Shakespeare’s bitterest verse (the second half resembles Lear without the redemption), Burrows defies what seem to be tonal limitations with a rich and varied vocal palette. And he makes sense of the most difficult demand of the role: you can believe that this furious misanthrope is indeed the flip side of the warm, generous host of the first half. That’s especially clear in the witty, Beckettian exchange with Apemantus and the poignant ones with Flavius. Both Lyman and Steinbach do honor to these roles, which are among Shakespeare’s most memorable and least known.
Prelude to a Kiss, which closes the Huntington Theatre Company season (at the Boston University Theatre through June 13), is, unlike Timon of Athens, performed frequently, though in recent productions the intent of the play appears to have been lost. It’s a fairy tale about a couple who meet in a bar, sleep together the next time they see each other, and marry after a scant two-month courtship. At their wedding, a strange old man crashes the party and insists on kissing the bride, and the kiss triggers a soul trade: Rita is locked in the body of an aging man dying of cancer, whereas he gets a new lease on life as a woman in the prime of life.
Like most directors approaching this material, Huntington artistic director Peter DuBois emphasizes the idea — voiced by each of Rita’s sympathetic parents at different points — that you never really know the person you marry because we’re all constantly changing, that that’s the challenge you take on when you agree to spend the rest of your life with someone. But Craig Lucas wrote the play during the dark days of the AIDS epidemic, and it’s a fable in which the young, healthy, sexy partner, out of the blue, becomes sick and decrepit. It’s obvious why no one would want to do that play in the 21st century, and I’m sure Lucas prefers the idea that his work transcends its era and offers a wider spectrum of themes for directors and actors to investigate. But the AIDS allegory is the only theme that works all the way through; without it, the play seems incoherent. Rita’s parents are wrong, at least about their daughter, and her husband, Peter, knows it: she hasn’t changed at all — she’s been kidnapped, trapped in someone else’s body.