Reviewed by George Basler
Comedian Lewis Black has made a career out of being an angry curmudgeon, spraying insults and invective about the absurdities of modern life.
So who would have thought that, under all that bluster, he has a sweet, sentimental side.
That’s one revelation of Black’s play One Slight Hitch, that is now receiving an uneven production at the Cider Mill Playhouse in Endicott.
The play, which opened Thursday (Oct. 30), is part television sitcom, part farce and not as funny as it should be — at least in its sometimes flat first act. It gains momentum in the second act and ends, at least in my opinion, on a high note.
Just don’t expect Black’s cutting edge humor. Despite numerous zingers, One Slight Hitch is more affable that biting, more silly than satirical, more Neil Simon that Lenny Bruce.
The setting is an upper middle class Cincinnati home in 1981, at the start of the presidency of Ronald Reagan. The action opens on the wedding day of Courtney (Lindsay Ryan), one of the three daughters of Doc and Delia (Tom Byrn and Maria Manzano-Johnson), to her straight-arrow psychologist boyfriend, Harper (Brendan Curtin).
The “hitch” of the title is Courtney’s former boyfriend, Ryan (Ben Williamson), a slacker or free spirit, depending on your perspective, who arrives unannounced after hitch hiking from New York City.
Commenting on the action are Courtney’s two sisters, Melanie (Kerrin Hawkins), a boozy sexpot, and P.B. (Julia Black), who is either a precocious teenager or total wiseass, again depending on your perspective.
Hilarity ensues? At least, it should. Unfortunately, as directed by Tom Kremer, too much of the first act is labored and dragging. Lines that might work in a stand-up comedy act fall flat on the Cider Mill stage.
To be fair, the action drew its share of laughs from the first night audience, so maybe I’m out of step. But my mind began to wander to the intermission concession stand.
The second act was better. Black’s play seemed to gain its footing, and I found it funnier.
Then came the real surprise. One Slight Hitch turns suddenly serious at the end with Delia, the wife, making a poignant speech about how she and her husband found love and forged a life at a time of hope and optimism following the end of World War II. She knows her children may never experience that feeling and are all the poorer for it.
The speech appears to encompasses the main theme of Black’s play. Admittedly it comes out of the blue, and some critics have called it saccharine, but I found it a touching moment that added another dimension to the play. And Manzano-Johnson, as Delia, played it beautifully.
Overall the Cider Mill cast does a good job. Byrn is fine as the husband, Doc. He is suitably harried, often helping himself to drinks from the living room bar, but is never a stock character. Byrn has much of the comic shtich in the play and does it well.
Manzano-Johnson gets her share of laughs as well, but the character, as written, is grating at times as Delia veers from nervousness to a near nervous breakdown.
Williamson walks a fine line as slacker Ryan. Basically the character is an irresponsible loser, but Williamson makes him appealing nonetheless. Equally fine is Curtin as the straight-arrow groom to be. What’s refreshing is that the character comes across as a decent, likeable guy instead of a stock figure of ridicule.
Not so lucky is Hawkins as the boozy daughter, Melanie. Hawkins does her best and has some funny moments, but the character remains a stereotype. Likewise, Black is suitably peppy as the teenager, P.B., but the character is more annoying than endearing.
Ryan has a difficult job in playing Courtney. The play hints that she is a potentially talented writer, with one short story in The New Yorker already to her credit, but Courtney also comes across as a vapid narcissist who just can’t make up her mind. You really don’t care who she ends up marrying.
A nod should go to scenic designer Tyler M. Perry who does a fine job creating a suburban living room circa 1981.
In the end, One Slight Hitch is pleasant enough, and you’ll have some laughs, but it lacks the outrageousness of a really good farce. The play goes down easily enough but is hardly memorable.
IF YOU GO: One Slight Hitch is being presented through Nov. 16 at the Cider Mill Playhouse, 2 S. Nanticoke Ave., Endicott. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays. Tickets are $28-$32; call 748-7363, or visit the box office from noon to 6 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, noon to 4 p.m. Saturdays and noon until curtain time on the day of performance. You also can visit www.cidermillplayhouse.org.