‘At the Wedding’ at Studio Theatre review: When the guest-zilla is the funniest person there

The thing about weddings is they turn everybody into a psychic. For Carlo, the guest-zilla of Bryna Turner’s play “At the Wedding,” it’s enough to be on the fringes of her ex’s nuptials in Northern California for her to feel the oracular urge.

When we first meet her, she’s traumatizing the kids’ table with stories of “the worst pain you’ll feel in your life.” She knows whereof she speaks. Though her reasons for breaking up with the bride are never explicitly stated, Carlo (Dina Thomas) has had ample time to stew over her lesbian ex’s marriage to a man and to channel her molten rage into a carefully structured cautionary tale, full of rising action, falling action and anagnorisis. The kids — that’s us, in the audience — are put on notice: Beware the “I do”s of March.

Vaping occasionally to settle her nerves, the flame-haired fury in a fire-engine-red suit bumps into guest after guest, finding convenient excuses to avoid talking to — or confronting — her ex (Yesenia Iglesias). Studio Theatre has assembled a delightful cast for the play, which premiered two years ago at Lincoln Center’s Claire Tow Theater in Manhattan. Among the attendees are Carly (Emily Kester), a bridesmaid and frenemy of Carlo’s; Leigh (Cameron Silliman), the nonbinary sibling of the groom; Maria (Holly Twyford), the bride’s mother; and Eli (Jamie Smithson, who looks like a draft of the Irish actor Andrew Scott), a high school English teacher who plans to propose to his own partner at the wedding. “I have never risked tragedy once in my entire life. It’s not my genre; I know that about myself,” he confides to Carlo.

This is the other thing about weddings: They turn everyone into high-risk candidates for grand gestures. Carlo wisely dissuades Eli, saying, “That is considered emotionally hijacking an event and it is frowned upon.”

Also generally frowned upon is showing up to a wedding without RSVPing, as Carlo has done in this comedy of bad manners. Though initially contemptuous of the event (“I’ve seen more convincing fire drills”), as she stealthily makes the rounds, she finds herself flirting with one of the other guests. Luciana Stecconi’s barnlike set, perimetered with candles in Mason jars, and Jane Shaw’s irresistibly anthemic playlist creates the perfect mood for romance with a touch of whimsy.

Will Carlo and the guest “risk joy” and plight their troth to one another before the play ends? Will they turn their backs on the “aggressively heterosexual” ceremony and light out for a lesbian commune? Will the cynic become a romantic? Have they had too much or too little to drink?

We never meet the groom or witness the exchanging of vows. It’s not a sonnet-worthy loss. The side-eyeing of the central event opens up space for something more novel: the experience of a queer individual being caught in small riptides of love and hate for her ex.

There are many, many switchblade-sharp lines in this grievously short play (directed with flair by Tom Story), as when Carlo muses: “You know when they should give you presents? Divorce. Because that’s when you realize you don’t have any mixing bowls, that’s when you find yourself suddenly eating soup out of a mug and it doesn’t feel cute.”

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Yet she isn’t allowed to bogart the apercus; each of the characters gets a chance to shine, though some all but cry out for larger parts, larger lily pads on which to brood. Twyford (recently seen playing a redoubtable Ukrainian mother in a city under siege in Woolly Mammoth’s “My Mama & The Full-Scale Invasion”) is given a boutonniere of a role, but with just a few lines she puts the “arch” in “matriarch.”

One anecdote she tells is about her own honeymoon. While skinny-dipping with her husband, they notice something glistering in the water. Her husband believes they’ve struck gold and is about to hike back to camp for equipment to dig up the precious mineral when a stranger walks by, sinks his hand in the river and says, simply: “Pyrite.” In other words: fool’s gold. There’s not a trace of the ersatz substance in this brilliant play, which is worth its weight in the real thing.

At the Wedding, through April 21 at Studio Theatre in Washington. Approximately 70 minutes with no intermission.

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