March 30, 2016

"Familiar" Puts a New Twist on an Old Story

The things I like the most about the new play Familiar are the things I can talk about the least. Unless I want to spoil the experience of your seeing this lovely work by the Zimbabwean-American playwright Danai Gurira, now running at Playwrights Horizons through April 10. And, of course, I don't want to do that.

So here's what I can say: Familiar is very different from Eclipsed, Gurira's play about women struggling to survive during the Liberian civil wars that sold-out at the Public Theater last fall and moved to Broadway earlier this month. But Familiar is just as affecting.

As the title hints, the setting (an affluent suburban home) and the storyline (the marriage of two people from different worlds) are well-established tropes. In this version the home (beautifully designed by Clint Ramos) belongs to Donald and Marvelous Chinyaramwira, Zimbabwean immigrants who have done very well, becoming a lawyer and a biochemist and so Americanized that their idea of a great weekend is to watch college football on their big-screen TV.

The marriage is between their eldest daughter Tendi, also an attorney, and her white fiancé Chris, a human rights advocate. The family members who have gathered for the nuptials are the usual stereotypes who populate these kinds of family comedies: Tendi's free-spirited baby sister Nyasha, Chris' clueless brother Brad and Marvelous' sisters Margaret, who has lived in the U.S. for years and boozes a little too much, and Anne, who has come in from the old country insisting on all the old ways of doing things.

With this kind of setup, the audience figures it knows what's going to happen cause it's seen it all before: people will squabble, misunderstandings will arise, feelings will be hurt, secrets will be revealed and then, right before the curtain, peace will be restored and everyone will be reconciled.

And a lot of that does happen in Familiar. But what makes this play special is that Gurira (click here to read more about her) constantly throws in little twists that turn what could have been caricatures into more complex characters. 

The people who seem destined to be the butt of the jokes (and there are plenty of laughs) end up evoking sympathy. What starts out as farce (there are slamming doors) turns into a meditation on the cost of leaving one life and assimilating into another.

The acting under Rebecca Taichman's nimble direction, is all-around fine with Tamara Tunie anchoring the cast in a multi-layered performance as the domineering Marvelous. 

But this is one case where I'm celebrating the play more than its players. For Gurira has shown a light on parts of both the black and the immigrant experiences that too often get overlooked. And what she shows is that whoever you are, there is something about those experiences that will be, well, familiar.

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