There's a celebration going on at the Claire Tow Theater in Bryna Turner's At the Wedding, and you're invited to bear witness to the... despair? After our wedding-crashing antihero, Carlo (Mary Wiseman) kicks off the event with a bitterly funny, fourth-wall-breaking monologue about the inevitability of soul-crushing heartbreak, a bridesmaid berates her in the next scene for making the event’s youngest guests cry with her spiel. Yes, you're unwittingly put at the kid's table, from which you get to watch 70 minutes of enjoyable, though trite, wisecracking and wisdom-sharing about the unbreakable bond between love and pain.
Heartbreak’s an odd fixation to have at a wedding, but then again, Carlo is attending that of an ex-girlfriend, Eva (Rebecca S'Manga Frank). Having failed to RSVP, Carlo envisions her surprise appearance as the stuff of rom-coms: She hopes Eva will realize Carlo is her one true love, who will save her from a tragically generic, heterosexual marriage. (More on that in a bit.) Carlo spends only one scene advancing that mission; most of the play sees her drinking — heavily — in an equal attempt to work up courage and drown her heartbreak, while falling into conversation with various wedding guests in a Company-style sequence of vignettes.
Each guest falls somewhere different on the love spectrum: There's Eli (Will Rogers), an earnest-to-a-fault English teacher on a potential fast track to heartbreak of his own. Maria (Carolyn McCormick), the divorced mother of the bride, shares Carlo's tactic of drinking her jealousy away upon seeing a younger woman on her ex-husband's arm. The waiter Victor (Jorge Donoso) floats mostly in the background, providing and cleaning up drinks when needed, but gets a singular moment to swoon over his "other half." And the mysterious, alluring stranger Leigh (Han Van Sciver) matches Carlo's jabs at love wit-for-wit, but gets her the closest to forgetting about her loneliness.
Wiseman, the connective tissue between them all, achieves the remarkable feat of keeping the audience's focus off the gigantic red-and-orange floral arrangement above the stage (the showpiece of Maruti Evans's rustic event hall set), and not just because her curly red hairdo is nearly as big. Wiseman's wit is sharp, her vulnerability tender, and her charm ineffable, even as she's wallowing in self-pity and picking fights with a bridesmaid (her comically similarly-named frenemy Carly, played by Keren Lugo).
Unfortunately, save perhaps for Leigh, all the other characters' development gets sacrificed to accommodate Carlo's huge presence and narrow view of true love. It was most disappointing to see this happen to Eva — her big day is in the title, after all! She had the potential to be explored as a bisexual woman healthily moving on from a past relationship, but instead, she's reduced to a trope of the lesbian who "betrays" the lesbian community by falling for a man.
One redeeming way to intepret these bits of At the Wedding is that it actually takes place through Carlo's point of view, and there is evidence for that: The guests Carlo socializes with are likely to be an unmemorable blur if she's drunk. Some of the decorations seem to conflict — one balloon that reads "Love is sweet" suggests a candy theme, whereas an "Anchored in love" banner on the hors d'oeuvres table suggests a nautical one — not that it would matter to Carlo, who sees the whole ceremony as generic and "extremely heterosexual" anyway. And a neon sign on the wall reads "til death," with the "do us part" nowhere in sight, which is just about as bleak as you'd expect from Carlo's mind. If nothing else, these details are another testament to Evans's marvelous design.
One other thing At the Wedding does get right is the lack of a clean conclusion. Carlo doesn't suddenly overcome her sorrow or forever resign herself to it within the play's hour; she simply walks away with lots to think about. The same can't be said for the audiences, unfortunately, unless you've never seen a rom-com. But there's a fun time to be had at this wedding nonetheless.
Photo credit: Mary Wiseman in At the Wedding. (Photo by Marc J. Franklin)