A review of Lewis Black's play "One Slight Hitch," at ACT Theatre in Seattle through July 8, 2012.
THEATER REVIEW |
Lewis Black’s taped command to ACT Theatre patrons to turn off their cellphones is a hoot. Do as you’re told during his play “One Slight Hitch,” otherwise, the raspy-voiced, irascible comic may hunt you down and throttle you.
Black’s take-no-prisoners invective in his popular stand-up act means to set your teeth on edge and rile up laughs via frustration.
Yet there are few traces of that satirical bite in “One Slight Hitch,” a nostalgic and belabored farce that brings to mind Neil Simon comedies, “The Philadelphia Story” and “Father of the Bride.” Black (a Yale University-educated dramatist) has tinkered for 30 years with the script, which had a well-received 2011 run at Williamstown Theatre in Massachusetts.
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The revised draft staged here by the same director, Joe Grifasi, on a perfect Robert Dahlstrom set, had some first-nighters rolling in the aisles. Others, like me, were more often rolling our eyes, and thanking the gods for Seattle actors R. Hamilton Wright and Marianne Owen.
The year is 1981 (the start of the Reagan era, we’re reminded), in the living room of the Ohio home of a doctor. Courtney (Kimberley Sustad), one of the three daughters of Doc (R. Hamilton Wright) and Delia (Marianne Owen), is about to marry preppy psychologist Harper (John Ulman).
There are predictable screw-ups with catering, flowers, in-laws. But the main “hitch” is the arrival of the bride’s ex-boyfriend Ryan (Shawn Telford), a genial free spirit who happens to pop by — and stays to “rescue” Courtney from her nuptials.
The plot and many of the gags are overly familiar (and reminiscent of Village Theatre’s “It Shoulda Been You”), and the younger characters are cartoony: a wise-ass kid sister/narrator, P.B. (Katherine Grant-Suttie) and the other sister, Melanie (Kirsten Potter), a boozing sexpot.
Broad hysteria bubbles up early from every small crisis and hits a plateau. (Just how many laughs can you get from a half-naked guy hiding in a bathroom? Or the fate of a seafood centerpiece?)
A major misfire is the miscast and underdeveloped Ryan. He comes off as a boorish, aimless dope with zilch sexual appeal.(Whether he gets back together with the annoying, vapid Courtney is of too little consequence.)
It is telling that Ulman’s straight-arrow Harper is more offbeat and engaging. And when Grant-Suttie denounces personal liberation as “another form of confusion,” it’s a hint that the misfits are not Black’s heroes.
The romance and biggest laughs belong instead to the comfortably “average,” elder Colemans.
Trying to be calm as others panic over everything, Wright’s comic agility is a delight. His facial reactions, semi-pratfalls, even his drunk shtick are hilarious.
He and longtime stage cohort Owen have a sweet, natural rapport as a genuinely happily married couple. And Owen excels at squeezing fresh giggles from a lengthy, wedding-induced nervous breakdown.
She also delivers a suddenly serious speech that crystallizes what Black may be trying to get at all along.
Delia laments the fickleness of her kids’ commitment-phobic generation and recalls the simplicity and joy of finding love with Doc, and the fortitude of their “Greatest Generation.”
In its neat twist of an ending, “A Slight Hitch” isn’t so much about ’80s singletons at all. It’s about the yearning for a past America that, at least in sentimental hindsight, looks better than the present. No wonder P.B. wants to be a Republican.