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A CurtainUp Review

We ain't no normal gatdamn family and we ain't never been no normal gatdamn family
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Becky Ann Baker, Samantha Soule, Constance Shulman, and Arden Myrin (Photo: Joan Marcus)
James T's opening comments about his family in Robert O'Hara's new play Barbecueare immediately borne out by the arrival of his three sisters — Lillie Anne, Marie and Adlean. As James T isn't exaggerating, neither am I when I tell you that this is the funniest and most original play I've seen in a long time.

O'Hara's Boot Candy, presented at Playwright's Horizon last year was pretty funny, but with Barbecue, now at the Public's Newman Theater, he's come full circle in terms of living up to the promise of his ambitious first play, Insurrection, (also at the Public). This is a big, meaty, uproarious satire that's sure to be another hit for the hit-making (notably Hamilton & Fun Home) downtown theater company.

The O'Mallery family's gathering for a barbecue with a special purpose starts off with all the earmarks of yet another dysfunctional family story, with a focus on low brow and tough talking characters. But O'Hara has a lot more on his mind than telling his version of such a story with over-the-top familial stereotypes.

Both acts of his play are full of surprises. For starters, the sit-com-like stereotypes turn out to be wildly original. What's more, the surprises keep coming in the second act as O'Hara's satire of color-blindness when it comes to family dysfunction expands to take on racial politics and America's increasingly anything-for-fame-and-fortune ambition.

Your watching Barbecue's surprising detour from "typical" dysfunctional family drama will be most enjoyable if you see it without an inkling as to what's going to happen ahead of time. I'll therefore refrain from including plot details beyond the set-up.

That set-up takes us to a local park somewhere in middle America and establishes that the O'Mallerys, mostly as organized by Lillie Anne, are combining a barbecue with an open-air intervention. The purpose beyond the cookout is to help their drug addicted sister Barbara break free from her increasingly reckless life style. We learn a lot about the whole O'Mallery clan by the time Barbara finally arrives on scene. But nothing really prepares us for the soon to follow first act's big bang ending.

Don't count on me to explain why the cast list seems larger than the above mentioned O'Mallery family members. It's all part of my self-imposed spoiler embargo. Suffice it to say that all the actors are terrific. If I had to pick one favorite scene between two of the actors playing key characters, I suppose it would be the one at the top of the second act between Tamberla Perry and Samantha Soule. But then there's also the whole ensemble's rollicking finale, and everything in between.

While O'Hara has frequently directed his own plays, he's this time left that task in Kent Gash's capable hands. Gash has helped the cast to seamlessly inhabit their challenging roles and added to the play's pleasures with a deluxe physical production.

Set designer Clint Ramos's park is elegantly and aptly lit by Jason Lyons. The actors' comic personas are splendily supported by Paul Tazewell's costumes and Leah J. Loukas's hair and wigs, as is the the authenticity of their speech patterns by dialect coach Dawn-Elin Fraser.

Even the crafts elements are not without their surprises. But enough said, except for a final thumbs up. Don't miss it.

Barbecue by Robert O'Hara
Directed by Kent Gash
Cast: Becky Ann Baker, Marc Damon Johnson, Arden Myrin, Paul Niebanck, Tamberla Perry, Constance Shulman, Heather Alicia Simms, Samantha Soule, Benja Kay Thomas, and Kim Wayans.
Scenic design by Clint Ramos
Costume design by Paul Tazewell
Lighting design by Jason Lyons
Original music & sound design by Lindsay Jones
Voice/dialect coach: Dawn-Elin Fraser
Stage Manager: Buzz Cohen
Running Time: 1 h and 45 minutes includes 1 intermission
our Public Theater, 420 Lafayette Street
From 9/22/15; opening 10/08/15; closing 11/01/15
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at October 4th press preview
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