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 while one of his “trunk” plays, “One Slight Hitch,” receives its New Jersey premiere at the George Street Playhouse.
At George Street the aftermath of a dissolved love affair is farcically, if also nonsensically, constructed by Black, who has presumably drawn broadly from his own experience. Here the aimless writer Ryan (Christopher Tocco) — who thinks of himself as the next Jack Kerouac — takes to the road after he’s jilted by his steady girlfriend, Courtney (Rosie Benton), after two-and-a-half years. A recently published novelist and successful short-story writer, Courtney has evidently made it clear to Ryan that a marriage to him is not for her. She has, in fact, announced — only a few months after bailing — her forthcoming nuptials to Harper (Scott Drummond), a wealthy and upstanding psychology student, to all — except for 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 Black is a master of barbed political commentary, 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, 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 may assume correctly that the intended marriage ceremony and reception are not destined for smooth sailing when Ryan, a loser of no noticeable traits or characteristics, arrives at the door to the dismay of Courtney’s father Doc Coleman (Mark Linn-Baker). Ryan is soon enough running back and forth from the living room to the bathroom — all the time 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 and the cellar door covered in the same floral paper as the walls and used for quick entrances and exits.
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).
This can only last so long, as Delia’s frenzy grows exponentially with her inevitable discovery of the uninvited guest. She is 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 Joe Grifasi’s efforts seem to be concentrated on the cast posturing when not otherwise punching out one-liners directly to the audience.
Melanie is a sexy nurse in her form-fitting white uniform and impractical shoes. She has no compunctions about drinking excessively in the morning, or in ripping Ryan’s towel off. I rather liked the narrative digressions of P.B., a precocious, hyperkinetic 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 insistently puerile material.
Involved with this production for many years, director 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 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 Mackay has settled nicely into her role as the flummoxed always on the verge of hysteria Delia.
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 30 years, perhaps we can concede and be grateful that the recent revisions made under Grifasi’s supervision are improvements. 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.
One Slight Hitch, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Through Sunday, October 28. $44. 732-246-7717 or www.GSPonline.org.