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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
One Slight Hitch
In a conspicuous display of serendipity, the socio-political commentator, stand-up comedian, and marginal playwright Lewis Black is currently appearing in his own one-man show Running on Empty on Broadway. At the same time, one of his “trunk” plays, One Slight Hitchm receives its New Jersey premiere at the George Street Playhouse.
The aftermath of a dissolved love affair is farcically, if also nonsensically, constructed by Black who has presumably drawn broadly from his own experience. Ryan (Christopher Tocco), an aimless drifter cum would-be post beat generation writer who thinks of himself as the next Jack Kerouac takes to the road after being jilted by his long-time steady girlfriend Courtney (Rosie Benton) after a two and one-half years relationship. A recently published novelist and successful short-story writer, Courtney has evidently made it clear to Ryan that marriage is not for her. She has, only a few months after bailing, and before the play begins, announced her forthcoming nuptials to Harper (Scott Drummond), a wealthy and upstanding psychology student, to all — that is except Ryan.
Black has taken what reality there must have been and morphed it into the kind of foolish farrago that would not have passed muster as a rejected pilot for a TV sit-com in 1981, the year in which this play takes place. If there is ample evidence that Black is a master of barbed political commentary and probably best known for his humorous political rants on TV’s The Daily Show, this resurrected comedy offers no evidence that he is even a minor playwright.
In the play, Ryan’s decision to hitchhike from his apartment in New York City to a suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio to visit Courtney’s parents is his illogical next step and only the first of many. It seems that Courtney’s parents were inclined to like him for better and for worse. To make it worse, he arrives at their home on the morning of the wedding day. A series of noisily absurd antics don’t begin to define this egregiously predictable (except for one final twist) comedy. But who are we to say that the conservative Coleman family and their plans for the home wedding shouldn’t disintegrate as fast as do the mostly unfunny jokes that pass for conversation or asides.
You'll be correct to assume that the intended marriage ceremony and reception are not destined for smooth sailing when Ryan, a loser of no noticeable traits or characteristics (to these eyes anyway), arrives at the door of Courtney’s father Doc Coleman (Mark Linn-Baker). I won’t bother to divulge the absurdities that soon enough find Ryan running back and forth from the living room to the bathroom trying to avoid detection while wrapped in a bath towel. Just as absurd is the living room setting designed by Bob Dahlstrom in which the bathroom appears to be an adjunct of the living room as does the strange entrance to the cellar whose door is covered in the same floral paper as is on the walls. It is also used for quick entrances and exits not unlike any typical suburban haunted house.
The ensuing situation is built on the efforts of Doc Coleman and Courtney’s two sisters, Melanie (Clea Alsip) and P.B. (Lauren Ashley Carter) to keep Ryan from ruining Courtney’s big day and from further upsetting the already addled mother Delia Coleman (Lizbeth Mackay). A lot of time is spent keeping the now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t Ryan out of view to provide opportunities for chaos.
This can only last so long, as Delia’s frenzy grows exponentially with her inevitable discovery of the uninvited guest. She is, of course, also in the midst of numerous crises that include getting bail money for the tardy and currently jailed florist and dealing with a caterer who has arrived too early and has put the shrimp boats out in the blazing sun. Director Grifasi’s efforts seem to be concentrated on the cast posturing when not otherwise punching out one-liners directly to the audience.
Somewhat of an in joke, Melanie is a sexy nurse who appears in her form-fitting white uniform and impractical shoes to have stepped out of a vintage Dr. Kronkite skit. She has no compunctions about drinking excessively in the morning, or in ripping Ryan’s towel off — a sight joke that gets the play’s biggest laugh. I rather liked the narrative digressions of P.B., a precocious, hyper kinetic teenager often glued to her blaring Walkman. She serves as the play’s intermittent point-of-view character who has things to say about family values, Ronald Reagan and how she will grow up to be normal and a Republican.
The biggest hitch for the audience is why they should give a hoot about Courtney and whether marrying the starchy Harper is really what she wants. It is not a spoiler to reveal that Harper turns out to be a rather standup guy when the inevitable happens. What the audience is mainly confronted with is a messy convergence of minimally defined characters who do not invite our curiosity beyond this excellent cast’s ability to the make the most of some insistently puerile material.
Involved with this production for many years, director Joe Grifasi has presumably done everything that can be done to keep the actors in motion, and mindful of their responsibility to stand their ground even if it is a lot like quicksand. As characters without much depth or definition, they do dispense Black’s occasionally funny enough one-liners, as well as expend a lot of energy in their behalf.
Tocco works hard as the unattractive and unmotivated Ryan to insure us that there is no accounting for taste or temperament. Benton, who was so good in Stickfly last season on Broadway and also in the Mint Theater’s memorable Wife to James Whelan, succeeds in giving us a few isolated glimpses into the kind of conflicted bride-to-be Courtney is purported to be. Broadway veteran Linn-Baker brings his expert comic timing and endearing personality to his role as the mostly nonplussed Doc Coleman, and Lizbeth Mackay has settled nicely into her role as the flummoxed always on the verge of hysteria Delia, the role she played in previous productions of this play.
Drummond is called upon to project the opposite of verve as Harper, but he gains our empathy with his humorously rigid performance. I like the cutting neurotic edge in Alsip’s performance as the sex-obsessed Melanie and also the free-spirited performance by Carter as the commendably tolerant P.B. So much for these superficially contrived family types.
If Black has presumably been fiddling with his script for about thirty years, perhaps we can concede and be grateful that the recent revisions made under Grifasi’s supervision and that surfaced at ACT in Seattle and Williamstown last summer are improvements. George Street audiences will undoubtedly compare this comedy with the much superior marriage-run-amok musical It Shoulda Been You that premiered there two seasons ago. Whatever it is about love and marriage that Black is trying to sell is best shared by the parents who provide the play’s one and only charmingly original idea. For those in the market to buy, know that this hitch is definitely slight but probably also silly enough to satisfy the minimally demanding.
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