The year is 1981. Reagan is in the White House and, for 16-year-old Republican P.B. Coleman (Katherine Grant-Suttie), hope is in the Ohio air. At least at the outset of Lewis Black’s wedding day period piece, One Slight Hitch, which made its West Coast premiere at ACT on June 14. The play was originally drafted by the acerbic Daily Show regular and surprising Yale drama school MFA-holder in 1984, when its tropes were current. In its 21st century staging, it’s a nostalgic backward glance at a time that seems both more innocent and more insidiously solipsistic than the present day.
Unfortunately, the Pacific Northwest saw a nearly identical version of this matrimonial story just a couple months ago, complete with interchangeable wacky disasters, gorgeous brunette brides with cold feet, exes who conveniently turn up mere hours before the ceremony and wry narration by the sister of the bride. It was called It Shoulda Been You and the clichés aren’t any easier to swallow with an ‘80s pop soundtrack putatively piped in via P.B.’s Walkman than with the rousing choruses by Village Theatre actors.
In Black’s take on the well-trodden wedding day plotline, it’s the day of 30-something Courtney Coleman's (Kimberley Sustad) wedding to rich-yet-bland WASP Harper (John Ulman). But once upon a time, she was in love with tubby, schlubby Jack Kerouac wannabe Ryan (Shawn Telford). Blah, blah, blah, Ryan unexpectedly shows up, yadda, yadda, where on earth is the florist? Dad almost dropped the wedding cake! Booze, tears, booze, the wedding … is off!
Wow. Didn’t see that coming just 10 minutes into the play. Nope.
If it wasn’t for the playwright’s inimitable “Black” humor, One Slight Hitch would be a torturous experience. His ability to toss snappy zingers into his characters’ mouths, each of them rotating the role of straight-man with rapid-fire élan, is stunning. Black’s acid-tongued dialogue evokes not just the indulgent chuckles common to Seattle theater audiences, but bellowing guffaws that threaten to drown out the next witty line. He’s like Dorothy Parker with access to an arsenal of F-bombs.
Director and Broadway regular Joe Grifasi unleashes his considerable creativity on ACT’s stage, including the most striking entrance, bar none, by a pair of actors this season. As the play frantically progresses, he and R. Hamilton Wright tease a fully formed character from the standard-issue long-suffering father of the bride. Wright’s interpretation of the role is impeccable, from the shaky way he guzzles a glass of hard liquor through one corner of his mouth while simultaneously smoking a cigarette from the other, to the placid ease with which he casts a fishing rod at his living room fireplace while dreaming of simpler times when his daughters were little girls.
Unfortunately, the rest of the actors frequently seem to have constructed their characters' personas solely with an eye toward imitating Black's signature surly snarl. Black’s delivery has been honed for years, and at three minutes or less on a political satire show, its single emotional note of barely contained fury and hysteria works as comedy. Ninety minutes of shrieking sarcasm on the other hand, is simply draining to sit through.
And for some reason, only Wright seems cognizant of the fact that if his character just tossed back three highball glasses of hard alcohol with amusingly intoxicated results, he would still be feeling their effect 15 minutes later, and should act accordingly.
The design team assembled by ACT nails the tacky coziness of 1980s upper middle-class “gracious living” perfectly. Robert Dahlstrom's set makes liberal use of dollar bill green, from the wall-to-wall carpet to the wallpaper splotched with cabbage-sized flower blossoms. Costume designers Susan Hilferty and Cathy Hunt deliver the best worst bridesmaid dresses ever when they send the Coleman sisters on stage in unironic baby pink prairie gowns.
Guiding us through this familiar yet visually antiquated world is Black's questionable choice of narrator – the adolescent P.B. She is looking back 30 years at this wedding day, she informs us early on in the play. And that’s about all we learn about her. She’s not on stage for many of the crucial scenes, her character does not evolve or make any great discoveries, and she doesn’t even get Black’s best one-liners.
Meanwhile, the presumed romantic hero, Ryan, accurately describes himself as “the irritating kind of charming,” a label that could be applied to nearly all the supporting characters and, indeed, the entire plot.
As for the bride, Courtney, she is an inauthentic construct that 1980s college student Black seems to have cobbled together as a representation of his ideal self a few years out. Little more than a shrill and snappish bundle of snark, she is, unbelievably, a professional and successful short story author who has recently concluded a book tour and has published a piece in The New Yorker. Or so she tells the audience.
There is nothing about the character that says more than “aspiring diary scribbler” before she drops these twin literary bombshells late in Act One. From her first line to her last, she comes across as a selfish, immature, two-dimensional bridezilla. She wants to wear the wedding dress, but she doesn’t want to get married. Harper skewers her at the end of the play, voicing obvious hindsight on Black’s part, “You’re the new woman of the ‘80s. She wants everything, but ends up with nothing.”
One Slight Hitch skillfully captures the zeitgeist of the eighties, a decade of unprecedented self-interest and rabid individualism, creating a veritable historic document of the rise of the selfish over the selfless. All of the characters are focused on their own desires. The bride wants what she wants — which changes moment to moment. Her younger sister wants to literally dance to a tune that only she can hear. The mother of the bride wants a perfect wedding, since hers wasn't all she'd dreamed it would be.
Only the father of the bride remains devoted to everyone except himself. Described as a man trapped in a real-life Jane Austen novel, his story, had Black chosen to tell it, would have made for a wild and touching ride.
If you go: One Slight Hitch runs through July 8 at ACT. $37.50-$55. For more information, visit www.acttheatre.org.