'Letters from Iwo Jima'

"As Much As You Can," detailing a black gay man's tussles with sibs and friends, plays like a very special episode of a vintage sitcom like "Maude" or "Good Times." Light banter is interrupted every so often by a serious declaration or accusation, prompting the aud to say, "Ooooooohhh". . .

“As Much As You Can,” detailing a black gay man’s tussles with sibs and friends, plays like a very special episode of a vintage sitcom like “Maude” or “Good Times.” Light banter is interrupted every so often by a serious declaration or accusation, prompting the aud to say, “Ooooooohhh”; confrontations flare up, but all ends in expected amity. Something this formulaic requires likable actors and funny lines or it’s nothing, and the production at the Celebration offers enough of both to make for a feel-good night out.

Sitcom types and tropes abound, as playwright Paul Oakley Stovall explores issues of outsidership. Sleepy Swedish b.f. Christian (Wes Ramsey, relaxed and persuasive) wants Jesse (Stovall) to be more forthright about their relationship. Tony (sturdy Andrew Kelsey), the brother whose wedding brings everyone together, is irked less by same sex than by mixed race.

Feisty lesbian pal Nina (J. Nicole Brooks) stirs the drink, while half-sister Ronnie (sultry gamine Yassmin Alers), daughter of the late patriarch by another woman, has her own otherness issues.

Working out those problems at a local bar is just hors d’oeuvres for the main event, with older sister Evy (Tony winner Tonya Pinkins) introduced importuning Jesus on her knees so you know where she stands. Her contretemps with Jesse is familiar stuff, basically a retread of Arnold vs. Ma in “Torch Song Trilogy,” but the star’s steely integrity, going toe to toe with the less-polished but equally heartfelt Stovall, maintains interest.

Retooling the script could strengthen Ronnie’s relationship to the others. Puzzling suggestions of Evy’s absent husband’s own down-low sexcapades befuddle further when they’re not followed up.

Play clearly opposes Evy’s POV but, to its credit, never ridicules or humiliates her. And Krissy Vanderwarker helms the ensemble into a shared backstory and family rhythms — notably in a cutthroat card game — that carry one along pleasantly. By the time Christian breaks down in admiration of the ties that bind this clan, the emotionality feels earned.

Tech credits are subpar, what with madcap opening-night light cues and actors throwing neckties onto sport shirts for the big wedding. Thrift shop furniture adds to the muddle.

As Much as You Can

Celebration Theater; 65 seats; $34 top

Production

A Hendel Prods. West presentation of a play in one act by Paul Oakley Stovall. Directed by Krissy Vanderwarker.

Creative

Sets and lighting, Heather Graff and Richard Peterson; costumes, Vanderwarker; sound design, Joshua Horvath and Andre Pleuss; production stage manager, Amy E. Stoddard. Opened, reviewed Jan. 4, 2008. Runs through Jan. 27. Running time: 1 HOUR, 20 MIN.

Cast

Evy - Tonya Pinkins Jesse - Paul Oakley Stovall Christian - Wes Ramsey Nina - J. Nicole Brooks Tony - Andrew Kelsey Ronnie - Yassmin Alers
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