Genre: Play, Comedy; Starring: Becky Ann Baker, Constance Shulman, Heather Alicia Simms, Kim Wayans; Writer: Robert O’Hara; Director: Kent Gash; Opening Date: Oct. 8, 2015
It’s not every day you see someone tased on stage. In the Public Theater’s Barbecue, playwright Robert O’Hara, director Kent Gash, and actress Heather Alicia Simms (who plays Marie) make the most of the, um, shocking moment: As a tacky fringed fuchsia purse and its questionably legal contents fly everywhere, Simms — encased in a three-sizes-too-small leopard-print mini — performs a face-plant that even the French judge would score a 10.
The takeaway? O’Hara loves to stun his audience. (Also: always bring a Taser to an intervention.) In fact, there are so many surprises in Barbecue that not much can be said about its content without giving them away. Playbills aren’t even distributed until intermission, lest the cast of characters expose the play’s conceit. The show is one big reveal after twist after bombshell — with, as you’d expect from the writer of last season’s outrageous Bootycandy, plenty of profanity and comedy in between.
It’s safe to say this much: O’Hara presents two sets of siblings staging interventions on Barbara, their “crack head alcoholic ho” sister, during an outdoor barbecue. They all have booze, pot, pill, and “casual” crack habits of their own. But they’re all very concerned about each other’s health, as evidenced by this loving exchange: “Hey there, James T, how that cancer in your balls doin?” “I guess about the same as that cancer in that one good titty you gat left.”
Clearly the Obie-Award winning playwright has a way with a wisecrack. And he’s corralled a cast who can land them: Simms; In Living Color’s Kim Wayans, as a bossy mother-hen type; and Becky Ann Baker — best known to some as Hannah’s mom on Girls, to others as Lindsay and Sam’s mom on Freaks and Geeks — rocking the biggest fanny pack you’ve ever seen. (Paul Tazewell’s costumes are trailer-trash perfection.) It’s even evident in his preshow announcement: “Turn off your goddamn cellphones, unwrap your goddamn candy, and enjoy the goddamn show.”
O’Hara has proved he can pull a rabbit out of a hat. Barbecue is lousy with rabbits — and laughs. But it’s curiously light on substance. In Bootycandy, hilarious as it was, O’Hara painted a shaded portrait of growing up black and gay. In 1996’s Insurrection: Holding History (also at the Public), he transported a Ph.D. student and his 189-year-old former slave great-great-grandfather back to the 1831 Nat Turner Rebellion. Here, when talk between two characters turns serious — rehab, family, sexuality — it almost feels out of place. Fortunately, it’s nothing a few well-timed one-liners can’t fix.