No doubt comedian Lewis Black is brilliant, but I’d hardly call him subtle. His standup traffics in apoplectic anger, escalating from a reasonable assessment — the nervy set-up — into arpeggios of unhinged, expletive-riddled rage whose punch line resembles a panic attack inspired by other people’s utter idiocy. Black’s humor is all sound and fury, signifying the pain we all feel at a world gone mad.
How then to explain the tenderness, the restraint, the classic orthodoxy of Black’s 2011 play One Slight Hitch, now on stage at Very Little Theatre under the fine direction of Adam Leonard? Could Black, and VLT, have picked a more “normal” subject and structure than a romantic comedy revolving around the marriage of a smart, free-spirited daughter of a middle-class family? What is this, The Philadelphia Story meets Father of the Bride?
The answer is yes, with a slight hitch, of course. The first indication that Black is deviously messing with our rom-com expectations is the appearance of President Ronald Reagan’s voice kicking off the play as he rouses the nation with a broadcast of his “Morning in America” optimism. Politics don’t dominate the proceedings, but they surely color them, seeping ingeniously into the fabric of domesticity.
From here we are introduced to a nuclear (in all senses of the term) family of eccentric suburban Reaganites on the morning of the big day, played by a cast that is strong across the board: Doc (Dave Smith), the long-suffering, hard-drinking father, and Delia (Tere Tronson), the frantic mother; the writer Courtney (Elizabeth Wilkinson), their daughter who is about to marry the “perfect” Harper (Clancy Miller); and Courtney’s two sisters, the saucy nurse Melanie (Gabrielle Morse) and P.B. (Eve James), the classic ’80s teen who occasionally removes her Walkman to engage her family and the audience.
When Courtney’s ex-boyfriend Ryan (Treyson Sherk) — a post-Kerouac bohemian who wants to write his generation’s On the Road — suddenly appears at the family’s front door, all hell breaks loose. Of course, we’ve seen this play before, with its games of diversion (hide him from Mom!) and ulterior matchmaking (he’s Courtney’s true love!), but Black has other fish to fry as well.
He does so with great depth and generosity of heart while never losing the satisfying rhythms of a good romantic comedy. With the lightest touch, Black reveals the new social forces shifting and colliding with tectonic violence in the 1980s, as the war-weary generation that elected Reagan clamped down with desperation on the diminishing echoes of their parents’ American dream.
This is best reflected in Delia’s helpless, hopeful words to her children: “We ached for life, hoping to flood the world with innocent children, replacing the smell of death with baby powder… We tried to share that dream with you, our children, but the smoke had cleared and you couldn’t smell it.”
The outcome of this play is not what you’d expect, but it’s strangely familiar, nonetheless — a happy ending, with a hitch that has a lot to say about where we are right now.
One Slight Hitch plays through Saturday, Feb. 1, at Very Little Theatre; TheVLTcom or 344-7751.