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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Phillip James Brannon and Jessica Frances Dukes.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Want therapy? Get out of the theater and into a psychologist's office.

This the (mostly) unstated message percolating behind Bootycandy, the raucous, if slightly rocky, play by Robert O'Hara that just opened at Playwrights Horizons. In the wacky theatrical world of O'Hara's creation, you may not be able to avoid "boundary-pushing" confessionals and tell-alls about what it's like to come of age, say, black and/or gay, but you don't have to like them, and you certainly don't have to produce them—and chances are, it would be much better for audiences if you didn't.

O'Hara arrives there indirectly, by first demonstrating a hilarious collection of ways this notion can go horribly wrong. We're first introduced to young Sutter (Phillip James Brannon), who, adrift in the mid 1970s, is still learning about everything from punctuation to parental authority to, well, his own reproductive organs. "Bootycandy" is, in fact, what his mother (Jessica Frances Dukes) has convinced Sutter to call them, though she doesn't like his innocent carrying of the metaphor too far. ("So can I lick it?") In this way and others, from mom's general behavior to the cap she makes him wear that accentuates his already out-of-control afro, Sutter clearly has mother issues.

The scenes that follow further break all this out. The second examines a pastor, Reverend Benson (Lance Coadie Williams), who explosively comes out as both gay and a transvestite during church. Then an urban black mother (Dukes again) waxes philosophical during a phone call with some friends about calling her child Genitalia. Sutter reappears to pursue a relationship with intertwining sexual and social implications with a man named Roy (Jesse Pennington), before we learn that the two are already, ahem, closer than they probably should be. Next, a white man, Clint (Pennington) faces off against the man who apparently just mugged him.

Finally... Well, to say too much about what happens in the brilliant final scene of Act I would be to give away one of O'Hara's most devilish surprises, and one that launches off a handful of additional vignettes in the second act that revisit many of these characters later on to see how earlier events ended up shaping them. But it's in this scene that O'Hara starts ticking the bomb that eventually detonates all notion of theatre as an emotional palliative: Sometimes, he argues, there's no more than what you see on the surface. And sometimes, when there is, there shouldn't be.

It's as bracing as it is funny to peer behind the fantastical scenes at this imagined gathering of African-American artists who don't have as much to say as the white moderator insists they do. It pierces straight through the layers of condescension at work, and forces us to confront our own concepts of tolerance, inclusivity, and diversity—good things all, but that sometimes do more harm than good. It's this last idea that fuels the second act, if unfortunately on a half-empty tank: Once Sutter starts getting serious, the scenes start dragging, and it becomes harder and harder to see the point of O'Hara's exercise. The final scene, in fact, is a satire of a parody of a parody that utterly lacks the buoyant humor and strangely stinging heart that drive everything that comes before.

But if Bootycandy ends on a down note, it otherwise strikes all the right chords. O'Hara's staging is every bit as incisive as his dialogue: confident and fluid, with plenty of wry references to both the period settings and the theatrical metaphor within which it all takes place. Clint Ramos designed both the bitingly witty costumes and the spectacular set that folds an entire universe of disparate playing areas (a bedroom, the church, bars, hotel hallways, a hospital, a kitchen, and plenty more) into a single, compact revolving system that's always revealing new surprises. The lights (by Japhy Weideman) and sound (Lindsay Jones), however, are more serviceable than inspired.

Phillip James Brannon, Jessica Frances Dukes, Benja Kay Thomas, and Lance Coadie Williams.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Oddly, the most critical performer also fits that description. Brannon is the only one who doesn't play multiple characters, but he hasn't crafted a consistent, compelling personality that guides you through his youngest years to middle age. His portrayal of his younger self, both in the 1970s and in the 1980s (when he's decked out in full Michael Jackson regalia) is sharp in every excitable detail, but Brannon doesn't show exactly how those kids transformed in the soul-crushed adult who's apparently conjuring all this. And that might be the most important thing in the play for us to see.

The other performers are sensational throughout, wielding precisely the comic sensibility needed to keep you laughing nonstop. Dukes is one standout because of the verve she brings to Sutter's barking mother; and Benja Kay Thomas, playing the older version of her, has a priceless monologue at the top of Act II in which she absolutely vivisects all of the remaining traditional stereotypes of the Angry Black Woman.

The experience of that night was supposedly traumatic for Sutter, who was already in the midst of a crippling identity crisis. It often feels as though Bootycandy the play is in exactly the same spot: feeling a powerful pull in one direction (toward comedy) while being constantly screamed at to be something more substantial. Like Sutter at that point, O'Hara hasn't found the proper balance, and the unevenness does prevent the play as a whole from landing as well as it could. But it's at best a step and a half away from scintillating comedy, and it's more than capable of getting there if, whether by therapy or, preferably, sure grit, it learns how important it is to be itself.

Through October 12
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage, 416 West 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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