by Jeannie Marlin Woods
“Perfect” is the exact word to describe the charming and hilarious production of ZOEY’S PERFECT WEDDING, which opened this week at TheaterWorks Hartford. From the moment you enter the theater, you are caught up in the excitement in celebration of a friend’s wedding. Playwright Matthew López and director Rob Ruggiero take us into a world that is familiar and on a ride that leads us into the unexpected joys and sorrows of sex, love, and marriage.
López is the first Tony Award-winning Latiné playwright to garner a Best Play Award (for THE INHERITANCE in 2021). Clearly an outstanding new voice in the American theater, López takes a well-worn subject – the wedding that goes wrong – and reveals an amazing array of unique and fascinating personal stories and conflicts which emerge under the pressure to celebrate a perfect day.
López manages to avoid the endless cliches by focusing the action on a distant corner of the wedding banquet hall. We are at the Brooklyn Marriott Hotel banquet room in the year 2008. Friends of the bride (Charlie and Rachel and Sammy) convene and are initially irate at being consigned to the purgatory of table 27, at the far edge of the dancefloor adjacent to the DJ stand. Soon they are delighted to know they are next to the undiscovered second bar where they can get an endless supply of booze to ease them through the dreary evening following an interminable ceremony.
Rachel is a professional wedding planner herself but her “best friend” Zoey has not asked her to plan the wedding or even be in the wedding party. Her husband Charlie is an unemployed aspiring musician who looks none too happy as his good friend Sammy finds his joy in the bar and the cute guy serving drinks. They console themselves with shots of tequila and reflect on whether Zoey will find happiness with her new mate—a good ol’ Southern boy whose uptight, very Christian parents contrast greatly with Zoey’s educated background and Jewish roots.
The wedding planner turns out to be Zoey’s young cousin, Missy, and she is totally at sea trying to manage the 200 guests when the food doesn’t arrive and she has only ordered food for 60 guests. We soon learn the DJ is obstreperous – he likes to play his own playlist and refuses to play the Dixie Chicks or any other choice from the bride’s playlist. The fact that he constantly announces the wrong name for the bride and groom and insists on making product placement ads in his spiel doesn’t help either.
After a drunken Rachel takes the mic to say a few words, she manages to insult pretty much everyone in the room, trying to convince them that weddings are a waste of money in a fruitless effort to make a perfect day. Before long Zoey has appeared enraged at Rachel. The plot unfolds from there to examine “what is love?” “what is friendship?” and how can we manage our expectations. As director Ruggiero notes “It’s about the difference between what society tells us will make us happy, versus what actually will.”
The comedy is nonstop with an extraordinary number of laugh-out-loud moments. It is also rife with a heavy use of crude language and is quite explicit about sex—heterosexual and homosexual. But the characters are so convincing it is hard to see them talking any other way. ZOEY’S PERFECT WEDDING is a bit like a rollercoaster ride. There are so many highs and lows. López’s marvelous script demands a big and interesting emotional arc for every one of the characters. None of them are just there to move the plot along—they all have lives that are linked together on this one disastrous occasion. It is a brilliant script performed by an outstanding cast.
The play soars with a fantastic professional ensemble – both fresh faces and players with a long list of impressive credits. Rachel, played by Blair Lewin, is the linchpin of the crazy events. She is most attractive and articulate – every inch of the professional wedding planner. Lewin definitely plays all the many colors and emotional depth of this complex character. Hunter Ryan Herdlicka plays Sammy, the glib and charming friend who sees life as a buffet of sexual pleasure. He is able to make us laugh at Sammy’s escapades but also moves us when his friends tell him it is time to grow up and he realizes, as if for the first time, he deeply loves the man who is his partner.
Newcomer Hallie Eliza Friedman is a perfect match for Missy, the young, inept 20-something failing royally at her first real job. Rachel B. Joyce gives a no-holds-barred, energetic portrayal of Zoey, the idealistic bride whose dream wedding implodes, capturing all the joy, angst and wisdom of the worst day of her life.
Esteban Carmona, as the D.J. named DJ, effectively creates a character that we don’t like until we do. Stephen Stocking, (reviewed at his first performance understudying the ailing Daniel José Molina) played Charlie, Rachel’s husband. Stocking has the difficult job of holding in his pain until well into the story when we learn his marriage with Rachel is falling apart. As with all the actors here, Stocking takes us into very real and very relatable emotions in a nuanced and effective performance.
Perfection is seldom achieved (as Zoey and her friends know only too well) but this production comes close. In addition to the sparkling performances, we have the incredible creativity of the design team and sure hand of the director. The set design by Brian Sidney Bembridge was such a convincing recreation of a Marriott banquet room, at first glance I thought it was a clever use of the architecture of the room. Bembridge uses the full width of the space to place panels of golden wallpaper and sconces extending out beyond the small playing space and making us feel we are in a part of a large hall. All the details of the room are precise—the “bamboo” banquet chairs at the round table, the lavender LED DJ stand, the bland but attractive carpeting and parquet dance floor. Also, the lighting designer, he did not forget the all-important mirror ball, which is used to great effect in the magical scene changes to the ladies room where the drama continues to unfold.
When the audience arrives Melanie Chen Cole’s bouncy sound score immediately sets the aural scene for the dinner party. That sound score ranges from STYX to klezmer music and it appropriately fills our corner of the room or moves off in the distance supporting each emotional up and down. Finally, the imaginative costuming of Harry Nadal completes the picture. Zoey’s wedding dress is lovely—not a horror and not over the top—and her lovely updo is graced by a tiara—it should have been a perfect day. Sammy sports an expensive plaid suit and Rachel rocks a simple and gorgeous red sheath. Best of all, Missy has an unfortunate frilly dress in big purple flowers, set off by a matching lavender fanny pack. I was only sorry we never saw all the bridesmaids who Rachel tells us are all in pink “like a bunch of vaginas.”
Director Rob Ruggiero deserves the most credit here. It is my opinion that the best stage direction is the work you don’t see. The set and costumes look great, the actors are sublime, and the piece has unity and all comes together. That is due to the artful hand of a director who makes it all seamless and apparently effortless. Ruggiero is clearly the mastermind behind the perfection of this production.
Don’t miss ZOEY’S PERFECT WEDDING. It is fundamentally a story of human frailty, extremely funny, and entertaining. But it is also moving and meaningful. That is a combination you don’t always get in the theater, although we always hope to find that perfection.
Zoey’s Perfect Wedding
Author: Matthew López
Director: Rob Ruggiero
- DJ: Esteban Carmona
- Charlie: Daniel José Molina (Stephen Stocking at the performance reviewed)
- Sammy: Hunter Ryan Herdlicka
- Rachel: Blair Lewin
- Missy: Hallie Eliza Friedman
- Zoey: Rachel B. Joyce
Set & lighting design: Brian Sidney Bembridge
Costume design: Harry Nadal
Hair design: E. John McGarvey
Sound design: Melanie Chen Cole
ZOEY’S PERFECT WEDDING run April – June 5, 2022. Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2:30pm and 8pm, and Sundays 2:30pm with no 2:30pm performance on May 15 and May 21.
In-person tickets are priced at $25–$65. On demand streaming tickets, priced at $20, are available March 7–20. All tickets can be purchased online at http://www.twhartford.org or by calling 860.527.7838.
TheaterWorks Hartford is a fully vaccinated house and requires all patrons to show proof of vaccination and to be fully masked inside the building.
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission at the TheaterWorks Hartford, 233 Pearl Street, Hartford, Connecticut.
Closing June 5. Website: www.twhartford.org