ST. PETERSBURG — We often assess theatrical works, and even make choices about which ones to see, by the adjectives attached to them: a light or dark comedy, a wrenching or uplifting drama.
As much as we might allow such thumbnail phrases to push us to click "Add to Cart" and buy tickets, we secretly hope the show will outdo its description and be more than the same warhorse you saw 20 years ago but with a different cast.
One Slight Hitch, the last production of the season by American Stage, is a light comedy. Lewis Black, who you might know from The Daily Show, wrote it in the early 1980s after a series of darker one-acts, prompting some purists to accuse him of selling out.
Black revised it over the decades, not to make it more current but to firmly affix the play in 1981. The set at American Stage by Greg Bierce includes a disco ball, which drives the nostalgia home during scene changes. Director Gavin Hawk, who doubles as sound designer, takes advantage of these darkened interludes to play Bruce Springsteen (Hungry Heart), Rick Springfield (Jessie's Girl) or Kim Carnes (Bette Davis Eyes, the number-one song of 1981).
The music plays as narrator P.B. Coleman (Regan Moore) dances to her Walkman. She's the kid sister of Courtney, a writer who is to be married that day in the home of her upper class parents.
Most of the action follows the plot lines of a sitcom or farce, full of calamity and dashed expectations. The driver of the plot is not Courtney, the bride, or even artist vagabond Ryan (Jordan Foote), her former boyfriend who stops by the house the day of her wedding, fresh off a hike in the mountains.
The heating element that brings the comedy to a boil is Delia Coleman (Karel K. Wright), Courtney's mother, a control freak who is determined to pull off the perfect wedding. She is enamored by Harper (Brian Shea), the clinical psychologist who has somehow swept Courtney off of her previously "unsweepable" feet.
For most of the first act, Delia frets over the florist's arrival while others try to hide the fact Ryan is wandering the house in a towel, waiting for his clothes to come out of the dryer.
Watching and sometimes contributing to the chaos are Courtney's father, Doc Coleman (Brian Webb Russell), and friend Melanie, a hard-drinking nurse played by Jonelle Marie Meyer. Actors unabashedly go for over-the-top hilarity. In one scene, for example, Melanie crawls along the top of the couch in an attempt to seduce Ryan. In another, the entire family restrains an increasingly unhinged Delia, who has grabbed a fire poker.
Thankfully, this zaniness is balanced by thoughtful commentary on whether the kind of romantic love captured in the World War II generation, sweetly realized by Doc and Delia, is even possible anymore. A mesmerizing performance by Wright brings out hidden jewels within the script.
Granted, the silliness it also contains can try patience. You wait for the play to turn into something, preferably something that is not wacky — because beneath all of the zaniness lurks good dialogue and promise — and this production eventually delivers. Jennifer Christa Palmer, as Courtney, skillfully seizes on those moments when hi-jinx give way to substance, and guides this play home.
The fact that she and the surrounding cast can do that shows that there was a method to the madcap after all. The unlikely messages left in its wake also show that One Slight Hitch is more than just another comedy, if not much more.
Contact Andrew Meacham at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.