It’s nearly impossible to review Robert O’Hara’s new play, “Barbecue,” without falling off the plot line into a SPOILER ALERT. This play, now making its West Coast premiere and opening the Geffen Playhouse’s 2016/2017 season, is packed with unexpected plot twists, genuine surprises, changes in time from the present to the past to the present, and raucous humor.
Let’s see if I can tell you about it without telling you about it.
The first scene, set in a park somewhere in “Middle America,” introduces a distraught family—-three sisters and a brother — who have come together to perform an “Intervention” on a fourth sister, Barbara.
The family consists of Lillie Anne (Frances Fisher), Adlean (Dale Dickey), Marie (Elyse Mirto), James T (Travis Johns), and the drug-addled Barbara (Rebecca Wisocky), whom they call “Zippity Boom.”
This is a family that might be dismissed as “trailer trash” in any other context, even though that derogatory appraisal is officially deemed Politically Incorrect. But despite all their trash talk, incessant swearing, drinking, weed-smoking, and pill-popping, they can be recognized as characters with intense feelings and genuine concern for each other.
Lillie Anne, who is the ringleader for this pseudo “party,” has asked each of her siblings to write a loving letter to Barbara to demonstrate their support for her. As expected, none of them has done this, so Lillie Anne walks each of them through some happy or mischievous times from their childhood.
Mostly, the first scene is set up to explore each of their personalities as they tease or mock each other in their own particular language, argue vehemently, or break into bizarre dances. Their clothes, designed by Kara Harmon, are diverse and flaky enough to augment the personalities they so ardently reveal. But this being said, this scene is too long and repetitious, especially since the unfamiliar patois they speak is sometimes difficult to absorb.
This language problem is exacerbated in the next scene, when a second family hits the stage with the very same problems and a similar way of expressing themselves. This family is African-American, a little more bouncy and rowdy, but dressed in the same outlandish costumes as the first group.
In this family Lilli Anne is played by Yvette Cason, Adlean by Kimberly Hebert Gregory, Marie by Heather Alicia Simms, James T by Omar J. Dorsey, and the focal point of all their concern, Barbara, is played by Cherise Boothe.
In each family there is much discussion about sending their Barbara to Rehab to get over her addictions to alcohol and drugs, and to send her as far away as possible. They believe that being on her own will compel her to take the program seriously, and they finally agree to send her to a rehabilitation facility in Alaska.
After a brief intermission, the second act begins with a conversation between the two Barbaras. It is some time later, and each of them has been transformed. One Barbara has written a memoir which, she insists, is “all lies,” even though it is about to be made into a movie. The other Barbara is a struggling actress who wants to play the lead. She has adopted the facade of a flamboyant “movie star” who will direct, produce, star in the film, and sing the title song.
This act is a more interesting and well-developed piece and the direction by Colman Domingo rounds it all out smoothly and leaves you, in the end, amazed and smiling.
Now you still don’t know anything about the plot, where it’s going, or how it gets there, right? So I did a good job!
“Barbecue,” with all its family dynamics and surprises, can be seen Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. through October 16th at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave. in Los Angeles. For reservations, call (310) 208-5454 or online at www.geffenplayhouse.org.
by Cynthia Citron