About 30 years ago, actor-comedian Lewis Black was dating a girl who said she never wanted to get married. It was New York in the 1980s—not many did. She wanted to pursue her career as an actress and went off to London to do a movie, leaving Black to his foundering stage career in the Big Apple. They had more or less broken up, so the news that she had met another man wasn’t a particularly harsh blow. Until he found out his ex was engaged. Three months after meeting the guy.
“And I was like, Are you fucking kidding me?” In true Black fashion (after a round of profanity), he turned the injustice into fodder for his writing. Not for his angry-man stand-up, which he’d been honing for a decade—for his plays. The 63-year-old satirist is known for his volcanic Daily Show rants about whatever’s goading him at the moment, from imbecilic politicians to iPhones, but fewer realize he’s also a graduate of the Yale School of Drama and a lifelong theater junkie. Know what doesn’t bother Black? What doesn’t send him into apoplectic orbit? Musicals. The man likes musicals, though not as fervently as when he was a teenager going to the theater with his father. “Back then it was really magical to me,” he told me over the phone from New York. “The fact that I’m straight is beyond my comprehension.” Just don’t suggest that he’s a thespian in a comedian’s clothing. “Thespian,” he growled. “That word is so hellish.” Black is more of a wannabe theater professor who has been writing—and rewriting, and rewriting—the romantic-comedy One Slight Hitch ever since his ex-girlfriend walked down the aisle decades ago.
“All my friends went [to her wedding], and her family was trying to figure out why she wasn’t marrying me. Turns out the guy was kind of a dick,” Black said. “But I started to wonder, what if I showed up at that wedding? And then I realized that’s an interesting story— and that’s a commercial play!”
It’s a farce of the old-fashioned variety: In the summer of 1981—when Ronald Reagan and Walkmen ruled—a young writer named Courtney wakes up on her wedding day to find her ex-boyfriend Ryan on her parents’ doorstep in Cincinnati. He’s been hitchhiking across the country (hoping to write “an On the Road for our time”) and arrives unannounced, sporting rock-hard abs. Danger. Add a mother obsessing over shrimp boats, a father who likes to hit the bottle, a libidinous sister, and a bore of a fiance, and a screwball wedding day unfolds.
As one might imagine, there’s a lot of Lewis in Ryan and a lot of Black’s worldview in the dialogue. “I am a different kind of charming. The irritating kind,’’ says Ryan in one scene. Snappy lines have never been the playwright’s problem; “it’s that farce shit” that’s plagued Black since he first sat down to pen the comedy. “Structure—it’s a toughie… You have to keep the play moving. If the audience sees a hole, they’ll go into the hole and not come out.”
One Slight Hitch has been in progress for longer than it took Mr. Holland to finish his opus. During our conversation, Black referred to a “rewrite,” “rework,” and “workshop” roughly a dozen times, and detailed the “sad story” of Hitch’s development with a healthy dose of self-deprecation. The earliest version of the play had run-throughs at regional theaters in Baltimore and Washington DC, near his childhood home, and was optioned as a Broadway show, but it never came to be. Alliance Theatre in Atlanta received the script and, not liking its premise, wrote back, “We’re saddened to see a playwright of your vision has sold out.”
“They called it a sellout,” Black said, his finger likely jabbing the air. “It obviously wasn’t a sellout. I couldn’t sell it!”
In the late ’80s he shelved the play and turned his attention to other outlets—screeds for The Daily Show, Comedy Central specials, movies. Black has written three books and over 40 plays, mostly one-acts, many of which have been produced around the country, but he kept coming back to Hitch, tinkering, always tinkering. About five years ago, a longtime friend and former roommate in New York asked to see the play she’d heard so much about. Veteran Seattle stage actress Marianne Owen, who’s married to Kurt Beattie, artistic director of ACT Theatre, says, “Knowing what I knew about Lew and shared with Kurt, I think what disarmed us was how old-fashioned the play was, yet very quietly insistent as to a woman’s choice in life.… Will she be a career woman, get married, do neither or both?”
Did Black even know what his character would decide? He was in the process of completely overhauling the show, cutting it in half and fixing the so-called “farce shit.” “I spent the last seven, eight years of my life, on and off, working on this,” Black said. The new and improved One Slight Hitch opened at Williamstown Theatre Festival last summer to positive reviews and makes its Northwest debut at ACT this month. With luck, Black will finally call the play finished and take some time to stop and smell the roses. Or admire the tulips. The old softie has some on his terrace.