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Barbecue

Dazzlingly inventive new work by Robert O’Hara about family, race and fame in which nothing is what it seems is best new play so far this fall.

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Heather Alicia Simms, Benja Kay Thomas, Marc Damon Johnson and Kim Wayans in a scene from Robert O’Hara’s “Barbecue” now at the Public Theater (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Heather Alicia Simms, Benja Kay Thomas, Marc Damon Johnson and Kim Wayans in a scene from Robert O’Hara’s “Barbecue” now at the Public Theater (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Bootycandy last season at Playwrights Horizons proved Robert O’Hara to be one of our most inventive, satiric playwrights. He has followed it up with Barbecue at the Public Theater which is now the best new play of the 2015-16 season to have opened so far. This dazzlingly clever play on family, addictions, race, fame and the media turns upside down all your expectations for dramatic plotting and continually takes you by surprise. Directed by Kent Gash, formerly associate artistic director of both the Alliance Theatre, Atlanta, and the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Barbecue’s cast of ten explodes a great many stereotypes while turning in scathingly satiric portraits of recognizable people.

Lillie Anne has called her brothers and sisters together for a barbecue in a public park – that is all but brother Fonzi who has just gotten out of prison and has to avoid them by the terms of his parole. In reality, she wants to stage an intervention for their sister Barbara, a crackhead who is also addicted to booze, and who has acquired the nickname Zippity Boom for her violent rages when drunk. Lillie Anne has arranged for Barbara to go to rehab in Alaska at the Halcyon Dreams Alcoholic Rehab and Drug Addiction Treatment center. All James T, Adlean and Marie have to do is convince Barbara it is in her best interest to go to rehab when she arrives at the staged “barbecue.”

The only problem – aside from the fact that Barbara is unlikely to agree – is that the siblings each have their own addictions and don’t want the others to know it! Each is in for his or her own insults and taunting: James T who is addicted to beer and marijuana; Adlean who since her bout with breast cancer has taken to painkillers and smokes likes a chimney; and Marie who carries a huge bottle of Jack Daniels in her hand and recreational crack in her purse. All of them are also guilty of spending their money on gambling, from the racetrack to the slot machines to the lucky spot scratch off.

Unfortunately for Lillie Anne, none of them think that Barbara should have to go as far away as Alaska – although the best advice is that an intervention should take the patient far away from his or her own original environment. And James T guesses where Lillie Anne got the idea: she has seen it work on the television show she has been avidly following the last five years. But as he reminds her, “We ain’t never been no normal gatdamn family but all of a sudden ya’ll read a book or see a tv show and ya’ll wanna gather up and act like we a normal gatdamn family.”

But then, after the lights go down on this white trailer trash family at the end of Scene I, they come up again on the same scene being continued by a black family with the same names and the same outfits. And the black family (that has no pretentions to gentility) is more ferocious to each other than their white counterparts. What’s going on here? Is O’Hara suggesting that addictions and dysfunctional families know no racial borders? However, the playwright proves he is after something bigger and at the end of Act I we discover that nothing is what it seems. The second act has another series of tricks up its sleeve which would spoil the fun to reveal. However, suffice it to say when the playwright has finished pillorying the addictions that contemporary Americans hold so dear, he takes on our self-images foisted on us by the all-pervasive media. And two Barbaras who don’t get to say one word in Act I get to make up for it in Act II.

Becky Ann Baker, Samantha Soule, Constance Schulman and Arden Myrin a scene from Robert O’Hara’s “Barbecue” now at the Public Theater (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Becky Ann Baker, Samantha Soule, Constance Shulman and Arden Myrin a scene from Robert O’Hara’s “Barbecue” now at the Public Theater (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

The two casts could not be better and make a terrific contrast: Lillie Anne played by Becky Ann Baker and Kim Wayans, James T (Paul Niebanck and Mark Damon Johnson), Marie (Arden Myrin and Heather Alicia Simms), Adlean (Constance Shulman and Benja Kay Thomas), and the two Barbaras (Samantha Soule and Tamberla Perry) who dominate Act II. Clint Ramos’ hyper-realistic park setting adds to the unreality of it all, like we are watching a long-running popular TV soap opera. The over-the-top costumes which define each of the characters are by Paul Tazewell. Jason Lyons’ lighting makes the trees that surround the set glow with unnatural green and blue lights. The hair and wig designs by Leah J. Loukas define the characters as completely as the costumes.

Robert O’Hara’s Barbecue may seem like a series of sleights of hand, but as a satirist of American culture, the playwright has a good deal to say about how the media shapes and defines our culture by how it reports the events of the day. Under the direction of Ken Gash, Barbecue will take your breath away at its invention and cleverness while holding up the mirror to our natures, exactly what theater is supposed to do.

Barbecue (through November 1, 2015)

Newman Theater at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-967-7555 or visit http://www.publictheater.org

Running time: two hours and 15 minutes including one intermission

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (546 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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