October 10, 2015

"Barbecue" is Tasty But Not Truly Nourishing

Barbecue, the sly satire that opened this week at the Public Theater, is filled with so many surprises that the ushers won't even hand out programs until the intermission. Which makes it a bit difficult for me to talk about the show without spoiling some of its fun.

And there is plenty of fun to be had, particularly in the first act, even though it may not be the kind of humor appreciated by the politically correct, among whose numbers I've been known to be on occasion. But even I couldn't resist the dare-you-not-to-laugh antics that playwright Robert O'Hara has his characters commit.

The play opens in a picnic area in a sylvan park (an eye-catching set by Clint Ramos that's terrifically lit by Jason Lyons). One after another, four of the O'Mallery siblings arrive and it's quickly made clear that they haven't gathered for the titular cookout but for an intervention with their fifth sibling Barbara, a crack head so volatile that they've nicknamed her Zippity Boom.

The real problem, however, is that Barbara's brother and two of her sisters are almost as substance dependent as she is, chugging from a magnum of Jack Daniels, popping pills and indulging in a little recreational blow before their baby sister arrives.

The way they're clothed (hootchie dresses and muscle shirts) and the way they talk (heavy on profanity, light on grammar) mark them as the kind of low-rent clan that people tut-tut at but love to laugh at on reality TV shows. And the fact that we in the theater audience are also laughing at them adds a meta edge of discomfort.

As he showed with his previous comedy Bootycandy (click here for my review of it), O'Hara enjoys playing with society's attitude's toward issues like race and class and he is totally unafraid of employing stereotypes to do it. 

His take on the prejudices that have been embedded in all of us can be brazen and wickedly funny but, also as with Bootycandy, O'Hara has the tendency to stop just short of making his audiences think too hard or feel too uncomfortable by underlining the point that he's just joking around so no one should take offense.

One of Barbecue's biggest surprises comes at the end of its first act and the second, while still entertaining, is more predictable and less sharp. But under the direction of Kent Gash, the 10-member cast, which includes Becky Ann Baker, Tamberla Perry, Samantha Soule and Kim Wayans, never flags. And, for good or ill, the laughs never stop coming.

No comments: