By Patrick Hurley
Robert O’Hara’s new play Barbecue, playing now at the Geffen Playhouse, want us to understand that things aren’t always what they seem. Not everything is black and white. Playing with dramatic irony, nimble dialogue and exaggerated stereotypes, this production is swift, surprising and often hilarious.Centered on the O’Mallery family, a drug-addled middle American group of foul-mouthed alcoholics, the play takes place in a park on the day that four O’Mallery siblings are going to stage an intervention for the fifth sibling, the sister they call Zippity Boom. The first four scenes play as a set up to the world of this play, and to the ridiculously funny characters that inhabit it. Upon her arrival, the play begins to unravel, and the so-called intervention turns into a blundered mess of threats and bribes and even tasers. And from there, the illusions of the first four scenes are completely shattered and we go into intermission with no clue of where the play is headed.
Playwright Robert O’Hara plays with our expectations, he sets up one thing, only to head in a completely different direction. When one could argue such a risky plot could be called gimmicky and trite, he always has an explanation for why the story is heading in the direction it’s heading. We just don’t happen to get the information until we absolutely need it. The dialogue is punchy and consistently funny. The characters he creates are all instantly recognizable, if a bit hackneyed, and for a purpose. This play wants to set up false expectations. The playwright keeps making promises that he fails to keep. This is part of the show’s charm.
Director Colman Domingo uses every moment in this production to heighten the expectations, and then turn them on us. He cleverly stages the first four scenes in such a way that the momentum is never broken and for the first time in a long time, total blackouts are one hundred percent necessary. The reaction from the audience when the lights come up on scene two made it one of the most successful scene transitions I’ve ever seen. As a director, he also understands the absurd humor of the piece, and he lets his actors scale the heights of melodrama to achieve it. And the entire cast goes for broke in all-out satirical, almost farcical style.
As Barbara, Cherise Boothe delivers a knockout performance. She is complex to the point of confounding. She is a beautiful mess of contradictions, and she plays each one of them to the hilt. A style of performance where the actress never relents, and the audience never wants her to. She is deeply invested in the fabulousness of the role, and we want more. Heather Alicia Simms as Marie is wonderfully boisterous, almost to the point of preposterous, but it’s the dancing on that line that makes her so utterly watchable. Frances Fisher plays the controlling Lillie Anne with gusto. She seems to be on the edge of a nervous breakdown, and tries to hold it all in, mostly unsuccessfully. Yvette Cason’s delivery of Lillie Anne’s intervention letter is flat out hysterical, and may be the highlight of the evening.
The only downside to this production is in the thematic development. It seems to sacrifice idea for novelty. And while the telling of this story will keep you guessing, the resolution doesn’t quite fit the style. There are moments where the story asks a question, and then doesn’t quite give us the answer. What does Barbara learn? What is the price of fame? What is truth versus perception? Does self-interest trump integrity? And then there’s an entire statement on race that comes into question. We may never know, at least for the O’Mallery family what all the answers are, but it sure is a raucous good time watching them raise the questions.
Written by Robert O’Hara
Directed by Colman Domingo
Previews: Tuesday, September 6 – Tuesday, September 13
Opening Night: Wednesday, September 14
Closing Night: Sunday, October 16
Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse
10886 Le Conte Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90024
Tickets are currently priced from $43 to $84 for the regular run (Sept 14 – Oct 16), and are available online at www.geffenplayhouse.org, via phone at 310.208.5454, or in-person at the Geffen Playhouse box office. Based on seat availability, rush tickets may be available onsite 30 minutes prior to show time. Rush tickets are priced at $35 for general admission and $10 for students, with a valid student I.D.