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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Heather Alicia Simms, Benja Kay Thomas, Marc Damon Johnson, and Kim Wayans
Photo by Joan Marcus

No matter how bad your family is, the two we meet in Barbecue, which just opened at The Public Theater, are almost certainly worse. Drug habits. Alcohol addiction. A penchant for screaming. Terrible dancing skills (no—really, really bad). One of the broods is pure white trash, the other pure black trash. In fact, they have so much in common that you could take either (or both?) as a sliming symbol of all that's wrong with America today and why, despite our most fervent efforts, the underlying issues will probably never be successfully addressed.

Such concerns, however, would be grossly missing the point of Robert O'Hara's astringent new comedy, which ups the hilarity ante he already threw down pretty handily with his previous play Bootycandy (which premiered at Playwrights Horizons about a year ago) by several orders of magnitude. Alas, to explain exactly what the point is would risk undermining the sparkling conceit at the core of the play, and a raucously perfect first act finale that surprised me as few in recent memory have. Likewise that knowledge is critical to possess the proper understanding of why Barbecue ultimately does not live up to its pre-intermission promise.

Of unquestionable relevance in any case is the matter of Barbara, a young(ish) woman who is the nucleus of her family's particular woes. She's in the throes of drug addiction, which has begun to have a TK impact on her brother, James T, and three sisters (Lillie Anne, Marie, Adlean). So they've asked her to her favorite park on a bright sunny afternoon, where they plan to woo her with the decorations and food of a party, and then force her into an intervention by any means necessary. (James T has, for example, brought a taser, and is not afraid to use it.) Things both do and don't go quite as planned, leading to a final confrontation where Barbara is tied to a tree and forced to endure her siblings' manic protestations before revealing whether she'll go to Alaska for treatment or give up her family forever.

Paul Niebanck, Becky Ann Baker, Samantha Soule, Constance Shulman, and Arden Myrin
Photo by Joan Marcus

Which family is this? And what does the other one have to do with it? Excellent questions, both, and more veering into spoiler territory. But once the similarities between the two groups become too great to ignore—they're both in the same park, on the same day, and treading much the same emotional territory—and O'Hara pulls back to show us what it all really means and how it affects the world at large (and boy, does it), that's when he extinguishes so much of the blazing momentum that makes Act I such a triumph.

It's not that Act II is bad, exactly. It has its moments, and expands on the opening lessons to reflect on the responsibility we have toward personal truth, and the role culture plays in acting as aid and accomplice to the biggest mistakes we're all capable of making. But with it, O'Hara becomes less bound to believability (even though he toes the border quite provocatively in Act I) and more prone to broad shocks and silliness that threaten to impede the deeper, darker message he's delivering. So much time is spent on the idiosyncrasies of one character—her constantly shifting accent, how she behaves the instant she has the park to herself—that you become unable to see her as the serious, powerful figure O'Hara demands. And the unhinged ending, which ties everything together at the expense of what few shreds of common sense remain, reads on paper far better than it plays live.

Director Kent Gash has staged it all aggressively on Clint Ramos's parodically pastoral picnic ground (the throbbing summer lighting is by Jason Lyons), but with just the right entropy-taunting tone. He can't stop the runaway caboose that is Act I, and he can't get Act II's engine to fire, but he's highlighted and amplified every laugh imaginable and wrangled the decent-sized cast into all being in the same play at the same time (no mean feat here). Becky Ann Baker, Mark Damon Johnson, Arden Myrin, Paul Niebanck, Tamberla Perry, Constance Shulman, Heather Alicia Simms, Samantha Soule, Benja Kay Thomas, and Kim Wayans are the actors, a glorious comic troupe blessed with as strong spitfire timing and interpretative creativity as you'll find anywhere else in town right now.

Their jobs can't be easy, as they require intimate precision with not just the well-oiled dialogue (which sharply but lovingly mocks stereotypical white and black patois) but also each other, but any stumbles the night I saw the show were completely undetectable. So thoroughly do you believe them all that Paul Tazewell's costumes, though models of appropriateness, eventually become their own punch lines by virtue of who is wearing them and how. Good as everyone is, deserving of special mention is Wayans, who plows blisteringly through an epic intervention speech with a determined exasperation that's every bit as uproarious as it is heartfelt. And Perry and Soule provide a solid center for Act II that lets it work about as well as it seems it could.

But after all the zany chance-taking of Act I and the bewildering interplay between the families that you come to know and love, the second act just doesn't offer enough to make the loss worthwhile. Perhaps this is a case where the intermission hurts more than it helps, and not setting up the expectations of a tumultuous resolution to those early conflicts would be more effective? It's hard to say, as O'Hara has attended no shortage of care on both halves of the play. But because what's good is so good, it's difficult not to wish that Barbecue were evenly cooked all the way through.

Through November 1
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
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