‘I Now Pronounce’ is escapist fare of a high order

Sometimes “new” just means new.

For some years, the word “new” in Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival of New American Plays has seemed more like an aesthetic manifesto than a straightforward assertion of contemporaneity. Festival plays far more often than not have fallen into such categories as “radical experiments in narrative structure,” “revisionist remixes of classic works,” “provocative treatments of trending/controversial topics” and the like.

In that context, the opening production of this year’s Festival, Tasha Gordon-Solmon’s “I Now Pronounce,” seems shockingly new — because it’s such an unabashed throwback. It’s a contemporary, wedding comedy with a blithe, weightless spirit that evokes the golden age of screwball romances, where loopy beauties, hapless gents, a cynic or two and some charming youngsters scamper from scene to scene sharing drinks, winks and barbed punchlines. If this script had been produced 80 years ago, it would been populated by the likes of William Powell and Myrna Loy, Rosalind Russell and Ralph Bellamy — and Groucho might have found himself lurking in a corner…

The action begins, though, with a tribute to Borscht Belt entertainment. This is a Jewish wedding, and Ray DeMattis, playing presiding rabbi, does a fantastic job of channeling such old-school comics as Alan King. He garbles names, family anecdotes and, indeed, the entire ritual. Then, he dies. Before the vows have been completed.

For the participants, the death of the officiant is a bit of a downer, but, for the rest of us, it just kick-starts the laughs. The bride may be mortified, but for wacky, dateless, heavy-drinking bridesmaid Michelle (Clea Alsip), the death has produced a romantic windfall: The ambulance driver who picked up the body may come back to the reception after his shift is over. Meanwhile, serious-minded bridesmaid Eva (Satomi Blair) is focused on doing whatever she can to help the bride during this time of crisis.

Groomsman Dave (Jason Veasey) is just as determined to help the groom. But he figures the best way to accomplish his goal is to spirit the groom away and keep him from falling into the dreaded trap of marriage. And for evidence that marriage is a trap, we need look only at the other groomsman, Seth (Forrest Malloy), whose own marriage is on the verge of falling apart.

These four members of the wedding party are by turns giddy and gloomy, earnest and cynical, romantic and lusty. The production overflows with sight gags and punchlines. And it’s hard to imagine there is a comic vein left untapped in the capers, cashes, cocktails, balloon drops, musical selections and costumes that build the atmosphere as the various reception toasts and roasts proceed (costumes by Kathleen Geldard; sound design by Stowe Nelson).

A trio of flower girls (Carmen Tate, Mary Charles Miller, Brylee Deuser) weave through the scenes in the adult action. Unseen by their elders, they themselves see pretty much everything. It’s settled law, of course, that all bridesmaids are cute.  But these three lasses — who are obsessed with the notion that the rabbi’s ghost may be lingering around the premises — are a hoot. Especially when they encounter human activities they deem scarier than any old ghost.

Then there are the objects of the exercise. The bride, Nicole (Alex Trow) and groom (Ben Graney) bring plenty of flare to their comic combats. They target one another’s weak spots with a no-holds-barred abandon that would be alarming if it weren’t so funny. Nicole, for instance, is alarmed by Ben’s failure of leadership during the death of the rabbi — and what it portends in the future, when her husband might be called upon to protect his family from a nightmarish litany of extreme disasters. As for Ben, if he’s not panicky, he’s more than a little ambivalent about the prospect of looming monogamy and responsibilities.

Director Stephen Brackett keeps the action fast and frothy — except in an oddly discordant seduction scene that finds the cynical Dave moving in a sinister direction.

In sum, “I Now Pronounce” is escapist fare of a high order. And toward the end, a surprise visitor arrives on the scene to deliver a feel-good coda that, if not strictly necessary, effectively rounds out the structure.

‘I Now Pronounce’ by Tasha Gordon-Solmon
Through April 9
Actors Theatre of Louisville
316 W. Main St.
Times and prices vary

‘Alice In Black and White’ returns

Last August, the Looking For Lilith Theater Company took its production of Robin Rice’s “Alice In Black and White” to New York for a three week run that coincided with the 150th birthday of the play’s subject, the groundbreaking photographer Alice Austen. During her lifetime, Austen’s work was almost entirely unknown (and it’s not clear that she actually tried to practice photography as a profession or a business). But over the decades since her death in 1952, the thousands of negatives she left behind have earned critical acclaim as one of the great documentary photographers of middle- and lower-class life in New York, especially during the Victorian period. Her own life — and her relationship with Gertrude Tate — was decidedly not Victorian. LFL’s New York production ran to good reviews (as did LFL’s premier production in 2013). Now, it’s returned for a local run.

‘Alice In Black and White’ by Robin Rice
Through March 18
MeX Theatre in The Kentucky Center
501 W. Main St.
Tickets: kentuckycenter.org
Prices and times vary