30 Years to the Altar

Lewis Black got dumped. Then he wrote about it. For the next three decades.

It is a relief, but no surprise, that in person Lewis Black considerably mutes the volume and intensity of his Daily Show appearances. His "Back in Black" political tirades are a form of acting, after all, and he's been an actor and playwright for some 40 years. Fame came late, thanks to Jon Stewart, and the 63-year-old Black has since capitalized on it with stand-up tours, HBO specials, books, and now the comedy One Slight Hitch, conceived all the way back in 1981 when Stewart was still in college.

Sitting in the top-floor rehearsal space at A Contemporary Theatre, rain pounding on the skylights, Black explains the play's origin. "This was supposed to be my ticket to teaching," he remembers. Not long out of the Yale School of Drama, he and his theater pals were eking out a living in New York City. Then his actress girlfriend, called Courtney in the play, took a movie gig in London.

"We had been living together for three years," recalls Black. As for any talk of marriage, "She said, 'You have to realize my career comes first. You're second.' " Then from London, "she called and said, 'I've met the man I'm going to marry.' And I went through the roof. I went, 'You can't tell me your career comes first, then tell me you're getting married!' Six months after that, she married the guy. All my friends went to the wedding. Then they all came back and told me what the family was talking about was why I wasn't the one that was the groom. Not very long after that I went, 'Well, son of a bitch, I got a play!' What if I showed up there accidentally? Once I put myself into that position, it all fell into place."

Well, he had the premise for a play: The jilted party (the Black figure) would somehow wind up at the wedding to protest. That character, a hapless writer, is now called Ryan (played by Shawn Telford in the all-local cast). The bride (Kimberley Sustad) is a more ambitious writer, engaged to a fellow called Harper (John Ulman). She has two sisters, an overbearing mother, and a father who's paying for the whole thing.

"I wrote it within a year," says Black, who counts more than 40 plays—mostly one-acts—on his resume. The comedy, then called Hitching and structured quite differently, was soon produced by Ohio's Kenyon Festival Theater.

"It had a certain kind of success," Black remembers. "But over time I realized I had a farce and I had a romantic comedy, and I had to figure out how to marry them." With fellow Yalie Joe Grifasi, who's directing the ACT production (following last summer's run at the Williams-town Theatre Festival in Massachusetts), they tinkered with the play over the past decade.

Though 30 years have passed, Black has kept the Reagan-era setting, he explains. "It has to be in the past. That time period is vital. The parents are of that generation that came out of the war. Marriage was easier for them. The first chapter of women's liberation is finishing at that point, and women really are entering the workforce."

Though the marriage-versus-career theme is still timely for women, Black concedes, the forces were more pronounced during the post–ERA/Wendy Wasserstein era. "Then, it was a major event. That period becomes the beginning of that unraveling"—meaning rising divorce rates and the notion of having kids without a husband. Back in 1981, wanting to please her parents (and fiance), Courtney doesn't feel such options are open to her.

As for Ryan, says Black, "He's always got great ideas, but he never finishes anything. He's still got one foot in the '60s. He's exploring. He's spending more time exploring than doing the things he should be doing." A dozen years earlier, he'd have been a hippie; a dozen years later, a slacker. But who had patience for such guys during the power-tie yuppie decade?

Married once and divorced during the '70s, says Black, "Most of my friends have gotten married." Over the years, he's had the chance to observe and take notes on weddings and their future prospects—though not, he avows, as material for One Slight Hitch. Still, that doesn't stop him from laying out the critical odds: "The real problem I had going to weddings was, 'This is not going to work!' "

And what is Black's success ratio in predicting failed marriages? "I'm pretty good," he chuckles. "I'm about 70 percent with that."


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