Last Friday (July 3) saw the world premier of ‘Til Beth Do Us Part at Asheville Community Theatre. Beth is the newest comedy vehicle by writer trio Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten who launched in recent years the Southern-friend trilogy Dearly Beloved, Christmas Belles and Southern Hospitality.
Jones, Hope and Wooten all come to theater from show-biz backgrounds (Wooten, most notably, wrote for TV series including Half & Half and The Golden Girls), and knowing that goes a long way toward explaining the format for a play by this playwright trio.
Beth, like other Jones-Hope-Wooten efforts, is stocked with campy one-liners like, “Chocolate is cheaper than therapy and you don’t need an appointment,” and “There can’t be that many men left out there worth shaving your legs for.” The characters are closer to caricatures, falling over furniture, delivering their lines in exaggerated accents, accenting their zingers with I Love Lucy-style O-mouths. No chance of a theater-goer wandering into this audience and wondering what genre is unfolding on stage: Even before the first joke is cracked, all signs point to slap-stick.
The setup is this: Empty nesters Suzannah and Gibby are at a bit of an impasse. Suzannah’s career in chocolates is on the rise while Gibby’s tenure as a local TV weatherman is winding down. Suzannah wants to go for a big promotion in the London office; Gibby wants to go for a nap on the sofa. In his underwear. Both rely on the support of their friends — feuding divorced couple Margo and Hank — who are too busy trying to get dates and make each other miserable to provide any good advice. When Suzannah hires personal assistant Beth, it seems that everyone’s prayers are answered: The house is clean, Gibby’s honey-do list is short work and Suzannah is that much closer to the coveted promotion. Only problem is, Beth seems too good to be true. Mistaken identities, people shut in closets, dudes in dresses and other hi-jinx ensue.
If that suggests that Beth is predictable, well, it is. But a level of predictability is what makes this sort of comedy run like a well-oiled machine. Joke after punchy joke, marital strife (the sort that caused the opening night audience to shout “Welcome to my world” and “This does seem familiar” with abandon), cross-dressing and falling from couches: It’s the age-old slip-on-the-banana-peel trick. We know it’s coming and still, it’s funny.
Yet, to a degree, Beth falls flat. The first act drags a bit, there’s too much set up for such a simple plot and the title character’s knee slaps and hyper-cute Southernisms (“busy as a church pew full of fans in July” and “back faster than a flea can jump on a hound dog”) grow thin; the lead couple are often upstaged by the show-stealing antics of over-sexed Hank and cougarish Margo (excellent performances by Rick Sibley and Kate Russell).
What’s simply confusing is that Beth is set in Ohio. Why? The Jones-Hope-Wooten team is known for its Southern charm, its over-the-top twang and drawl, its wearing of cowgirl boots, chugging of sweet tea and invoking of Jesus. Beth has a similar feel, minus the cultural clichés (except that Beth herself bears a striking resemblance to Paula Deen) that made earlier Jones-Hope-Wooten comedies such a guilty pleasure.
Act two is smoother. The pace picks up, the physical comedy reaches a fever pitch and the ending even packs a surprise. And there are some winning lines: “Save your breath, Hank. You’ll need it later to blow up your date” draws a shrieking response from the audience and “I don’t recall ever wrestling with a host before cocktails are served” is similarly well-received.
Beth comes to a satisfying conclusion and, overall, makes for a light-hearted and enjoyable evening, even if it can’t compare to previous Jones-Hope-Wooten projects. Here’s hoping the playwright trio returns to their Southern roots (and muses) for their next script.