If you're going to be held hostage after a first date, it might as well be by Theda Blau. This wacky platinum-blonde, with a personality the size of the Gulf Stream and energy to match, is the heroine of "It Had to Be You," the piece of comic fluff American Century Theater has selected as its season opener.
A Bronx-bred vegan who says things like "The moment I met you, my crystals glowed," Theda has appeared in "The Monday Mugger," "Brides of the Werewolves" and other seminal movies. Despite a lack of acclaim in such endeavors, she's cheerily sweating over her next artistic project: writing a six-act epic about a Russian aristocrat who gets crucified upside down.
In other words, Theda has nothing whatsoever in common with a suave, wealthy director-producer named Vito Pignoli -- with the result that the two meet cute one Christmas Eve and wind up bantering in Theda's apartment, where she manages to hide his clothes. As we all know, the path of true love never did run smooth, and it sure doesn't in this two-hour antic, which husband-and-wife showbiz team Joseph Bologna and Renee Taylor based loosely on their own romance. The duo debuted the play in 1981 -- long enough ago to qualify it for the repertoire of American Century, which is better known for staging dusty classics like "Tea and Sympathy" and "Machinal."
Those chestnuts boast more literary merit, but "It Had to Be You" is an amusing trifle, rendered all the more entertaining in this production by Karen Jadlos Shotts. In the role of Theda, she hams it up with brazen abandon, using a New Yawk accent so broad it could fill Yankee Stadium. Bologna and Taylor wrote the part as a cartoon, but Shotts makes it an engaging cartoon -- part aging bombshell, part brassy dragon lady, part lovable waif. And she lends authenticity to the character's daffy actions, such as flourishing acupuncture needles, and producing a full roll of toilet paper from her handbag in lieu of Kleenex. A sequence in which Theda flings herself into a traditional Russian dance, dropping knee bends and strutting in place, is hilarious.
Playing the straight man, Mark Adams's eyes are widened in more or less the same appalled, baffled gaze for most of the production. But then he's not helped by some of the creakier plot twists that revolve around his character: a personal confession Vito trots out at one point might as well be flagged in neon: "Crucial Turning Point Here."
While not imbuing Vito with subtlety, Adams helps keep the zaniness clocking along under Ellen Dempsey's good-humored direction. Adding piquancy to the production is Thomas B. Kennedy's gorgeously messy set: A Manhattan apartment cluttered with laundry, stray shoes, kitschy objets d'art, balled-up typing paper and a beautiful gold oriental fan. Not to be outdone on the visual front, Rip Claassen chips in with aptly eccentric costumes for Theda, including a violently purple evening dress and a pink coat with matching faux fur.
It would all be an eyesore if encountered in reality, but "It Had to Be You" takes place quite far from reality. If it seems equally far from the neglected masterpieces American Century usually mounts, that's not a strenuous criticism. Audiences looking for profundity will be sadly disappointed, but those in the mood for sheer froth may well be willing to let Theda take them prisoner for a while.
It Had to Be You, by Renee Taylor and Joseph Bologna. Directed by Ellen Dempsey; set design, Thomas B. Kennedy; costumes, Rip Claassen; lighting, Ayun Fedorcha; sound, Kevin Harney. Approximately 2 hours. At Theater II, Gunston Arts Center, 2700 S. Lang Street, Arlington. Visit www.americancentury.org or call 703-553-8782.