Thursday, October 14, 2021

6. CHICKEN AND BISCUITS (seen October 13, 2021)

"Hold the Potatoes"

Norm Lewis, Cleo King. (Photos: Emilio Madrid.)
If Chicken and Biscuits, Douglas Lyons’s new play at the Circle in the Square, were a potato, it would make a potential side dish for the food mentioned in the title. After all, it mashes together a panoply of different styles, including family comedy, zany farce, domestic melodrama, and even revivalist singing, smothering them in heavy acting gravy. Sadly, these mashed methods aren’t so easy to swallow.

Michael Urie, Devere Rogers.

Originally seen in 2020 at the Queens Theatre, Queens, NY, Chicken and Biscuits is a raucous funeral comedy about an African-American family. Some theatregoers were in stitches; others, myself included, squirmed in their britches.  

Aigner Mizzelle, Ebony Marshall-Oliver, Alana Raquel Bowers.

Friendly, warmhearted, and schmaltzy, the play—vigorously staged by Zhailon Levingston—never makes up its mind as to just what it wants to be. It spends the first half of its intermissionless 110 minutes establishing its clichéd characters with broadly painted strokes before anything one might call an “inciting incident” occurs. At that point, it suddenly introduces a new character whose catalytic presence blows the situation sky high before the pieces manage to fall back to earth in neatly packaged, feel-good resolutions.

Cleo King (like many in the cast, making an impressive Broadway debut) and the always reliable Norm Lewis (Broadway’s first African-American Phantom in Phantom of the Opera) play the middle-aged matriarch Baneatta Mabry and her preacher husband Reginald. When we first see this lovingly bantering couple they’re preparing to attend the funeral of Baneatta’s preacher father, Bernard Jenkins. Reggie has succeeded to his father-in-law’s position at St. Luke’s church in New Haven, CT, where the funeral is about to take place.

Accordingly, Lawrence E. Moten III’s set—brightly lit by Adam Honoré—turns the Circle’s three-quarters round configuration into a church interior, including stained-glass images on the surrounding walls, with movable pews that help divide the space into multiple locales. The churchy atmosphere is enhanced by Dede Ayite’s lively costumes, including the ladies’ memorable millinery.

As per the formula for funeral plays, film, and TV shows (like, for example, 2007’s Death at a Funeral, also about a Black family), those most closely associated with the deceased gather closely together to say their farewells. Volatile family chemicals in such proximity can be explosive, of course; as expected, the expected detonation eventually occurs.

Among the array of heightened characters is Baneatta’s sass-spouting, bra-busting sister, Beverly (Ebony Marshall Oliver, a force of nature). A fitter-than-a-fiddle peacock in black spikes, sequined dress, and jacket, she colors her multi-patterned hair a dazzling turquoise (and other eye-catching hues). We soon see the tension between the self-consciously outrageous Beverly—who pushes the envelope the way her bra pushes up her puppies (as she calls them)—and her upright church lady sister, indignant about Beverly flaunting her “titties” so openly. This becomes one of several running jokes.

The sibling conflict between Beverly and Baneatta is balanced by the discomfort felt by Baneatta’s gay actor son, Kenny (Devere Rogers), about coming out to his family. (Haven’t we seen this play before?) This, despite Kenny’s being there with his lover, Logan Leibowitz (Michael Urie, increasingly typecast as a needy gay guy), white and Jewish. In a particularly tired running joke, no one can properly remember the name Logan: Lamar, Loofah, and Lucas are among those proffered. Only the audience, perhaps, has any trouble with Baneatta or La’ Trice.

Ebony Marshall-Oliver, Michael Urie, Devere Rogers, Cleo King.

La' Trice (the ultra-animated Aigner Mizzelle) is Beverly’s fifteen-year-old daughter, an aspiring songstress-song writer, as extreme in her own overstated teen fashionista way and manners as her flamboyant mom. Then there’s the Mabrys’ somewhat more subdued daughter, Simone (the grounded Alana Raquel Bowers), Kenny’s sister, nursing her own private wounds, who objects to Kenny’s dalliance with a white man. Finally, we meet Brianna (NaTasha Yvette Williams, solid), the surprise visitor who finally gets the plot moving. I’ll avoid disclosing her connection, although it’s just another part of the formula.

Chicken and Biscuits takes pleasure in its own cartoonishness, sometimes even breaking the fourth wall to take the audience into its world (we’re presumed, when necessary, to be part of the funeral attendees). This wouldn’t be so bad if the material were funnier, or if the acting—polished as the performers are—weren’t trying so hard to make us laugh. For farce to work, you need more than energy and sheer determination. You have to be credible, and that, despite the obvious talent present, doesn’t happen enough in Chicken and Biscuits.

Ebony Marshall-Oliver, Michael Urie, Devere Rogers.

The play does sometimes veer, oddly, into the realm of believability. For instance, most of the characters are asked to deliver a three-minute eulogy of the departed. For perhaps fifteen minutes you hear just the kind of sincere memories, with occasional comic flavoring, as you’d be likely to encounter at any real-life service. The dramatic action freezes and we listen as if there really was a corpse in the onstage coffin. But when the otherwise sober preacher speak-sings his piece (Norm Lewis has a Broadway voice, of course), the play shifts into another, much wilder realm, out of sync with what’s just transpired. And when Brianna explains who she is, things get even crazier.

Alana Raquel Bowers, Aigner Mizzelle.

Sibling rivalries, escapes from the gay closet, parental worries, religious aspirations, Black women’s empowerment, and inter-racial humor (don’t forget that very white guy’s presence) are appropriate concerns, even if meant more for laughs than social change; they all get their moments—both satirical and serious—in the spotlight. But they're not enough to make this a satisfying theatrical meal.

Cleo King, Ebony Marshall-Oliver, NaTasha Yvette Williams.

You can mash, fry, boil, and bake Chicken and Biscuits but it still doesn’t make a very good play.

Cleo King and the cast of Chicken and Biscuits.

Chicken and Biscuits

Circle in the Square

1633 Broadway, NYC (Fiftieth Street)

Through January 2, 2022