Robert O’Hara’s cruelly funny new play, “Barbecue,” shrewdly turns the formula for the American domestic comedy on its head, forcing uneasy thoughts about the facile presumptions we make about poverty, race and social class, as applied to dysfunctional families. In this premiere at the Public Theater, it seems safe enough to howl at the antics of poor white trailer-trash siblings staging an intervention for the family hellion. But what if a poor black trailer-trash brood organized the same intervention for one of their own? Anyone have a problem with that?
“We ain’t no gotdamn normal family,” insists James T (Paul Niebanck), resisting his bossy sister Lillie Anne’s (Becky Ann Baker) efforts to bully him and their sisters into passing for an all-American family. At least, long enough to carry out a family intervention for their youngest sister, Barbara (Samantha Soule), a prime candidate for rehab. Another brother, Fonzi, has been out of prison for over a year, but being anywhere near his felony-prone family would be a clear violation of his parole.
Appealing to James T’s sense of brotherly love, Lillie Anne has appointed him grill master of the outdoor barbecue she’s organized in Barbara’s favorite park. (A bucolic spot, in Clint Ramos’s design) But two of the sisters have crack habits, two are addicted to both crack and alcohol, one of them is also hooked on pills, and James himself is a beer hound. Their grandchildren, who are locked in a car outside the picnic area, are on Ritalin.
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The family might be an ongoing trainwreck, but Barbara is the only one of them who gets so violent when she’s drunk, her kin call her “Zippity Boom.” (As in: “Zippity Boom is baaad. She. Do Not. Play.”) So, to save their crazy sister from herself, the siblings grudgingly agree to put aside their drugs of choice and set the scene for this “gotdamn intervention.”
Kent Gash’s spit-polish helming keeps the terrific ensemble tight and on-target, and some invaluable voice work from dialect coach Dawn-Elin Fraser honors the sheer audacity of O’Hara’s dialect-drenched idiom. But just as the prodigal sister shows up, in the always-welcome person of Soules, the play shifts into surreal territory by replacing this family of white crackers with a family of black crackers.
The accents are just as funny when O’Hara makes this diabolical switch, and the black trash-talkers are as comically clueless as the white ones. But they are definitely not carbon copies. Kim Wayans’ Lillie Anne, for one, is a tough and merciless drill sergeant compared to Baker’s frustrated bossy-boots. And although they’re dressed in identical costumes (by Paul Tazewell), their outlandish hair and wigs (by Leah J. Loukas) make their own definitive statements.
O’Hara pulls a major dramatic trick at the end of Act One and another one at the top of Act Two that I am honor-bound not to reveal. But let it be known that Soule’s white Barbara meets Tamberla Perry’s black Barbara and they have even more in common than their families.