Judged by the lofty standards of dramatic literature, Paul Oakley Stovall's "Immediate Family" isn't all that impressive. But as dramatic entertainment, it's often touching and amusing and through its sensitive handling of topical subjects it means to do some good in the world.
Last week, the Supreme Court heard arguments in the same-sex marriage cases that had Justice Anthony M. Kennedy openly worrying about tampering with "millennia" of tradition. But as historian John Boswell pointed out decades ago in his groundbreaking book "Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality," "No marriages in ancient society closely match their modern equivalents."
Traditions evolve, thankfully. It is a difficult evolution, to be sure, as Stovall reminds us in his play about a proud, comfortably middle-class African American family in Chicago's Hyde Park forced to finally deal with middle brother Jesse's sexual orientation after he invites his white "roommate" to his kid brother's wedding.
If Jesse's gayness weren't enough of a challenge in a household presided over by Evy (Shanésia Davis), the eldest sibling trying to uphold the traditions of her dead parents, his bringing home a white partner eager to tie the knot is the straw that nearly breaks the camel's back in a drama that uses laughter to assuage heated differences.
The humor is the kind that you would be happy to stumble upon while channel surfing. The characters are exaggerated to get a rise but not so much to kill emotional connection. The jokes are racy but never alienating.
Directed by Phylicia Rashad (the Tony Award-winning actress and stage director best known for her starring role on "The Cosby Show"), the production, which opened Sunday at the Mark Taper Forum, extends a generous TV comedy embrace. Everything is a little too polished and plotted. No one is going to confuse "Immediate Family" with stark realism, though if John Iacovelli's set had a "for sale" sign posted on it, the home would likely get competing bids from audience members.
In short, you know you're being conned, but it's mostly fun and it's for a good reason, so why not go along with it?
Jesse (Bryan Terrell Clark) is the most psychologically intriguing of the characters. Indeed, the play's complexity stems from the way he shuffles his competing loyalties (to his family, to the black community and to his own truth as a gay man struggling to live with dignity, meaning and self-respect).
Based now in Minneapolis, Jesse may no longer be in the closet, but he's used to keeping his private life on the "down low" when around his family, which explains why he's been such a reluctant visitor in recent years. He's discreet, not because he's ashamed but because he doesn't want to give offense to those he fears will take offense. A picture of his dead parents hangs prominently in the living room, making them ever present to him — not that he could forget the whupping he received when his minister father caught him kissing another boy as a teen.
The ensemble works hard — sometimes too hard — to win over the audience. J. Nicole Brooks provides supercharged comic relief as wacky lesbian neighbor Nina, Jesse's childhood best friend, who's always on the prowl for a good time. Cynda Williams, as Jesse's biracial half sister Ronnie, preaches acceptance while keeping the liquor flowing like Patsy from "Absolutely Fabulous."
This 90-minute play, suffused with sibling merriment and horseplay, can't do justice to all the characters. Ronnie's complicated relationship with the family who long excluded her adds some lumpiness (and melodrama) to the writing, even as it underscores the point that family business is hardly ever black and white — which in this case is both a literal and figurative reality.
"Immediately Family," which has been revised since it was produced in 2012 at the Goodman Theatre (also under Rashad's direction), loses its footing when Kristian (Mark Jude Sullivan), Jesse's Swedish boyfriend, finally arrives. Stovall never finds Kristian's voice, turning him into a slow-witted Nordic caricature that is beyond Sullivan's power to redeem.
As Evy, Davis plays the heavy, preaching and pestering her nearest and dearest, but every drama needs an antagonist, and she's the one trying to keep the family together. Kamal Angelo Bolden, in the role of altar-bound Tony, has long known about his brother's "secret" but is thrown by Kristian's race ("I thought he was at least gon' be black").
When Evy and Jesse have it out, the boil is finally lanced. Evy, a teacher who carefully curates African American history for her students, voices her resentment "that yet another black man is of no use to his people." She uses religion as a way to upbraid him for his choices: "The Lord wants you to be married. He wants you to raise children."
This is precisely what Jesse wants, only with Kristian, who has a son of his own. Jesse doesn't yet have the inner courage to forcefully articulate this as a civil rights battle worthy of one day being taught in his sister's classroom. But this important if sitcom-y family reunion has given him a golden opportunity to refine and reaffirm what family really means.
Where: Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays.
Ends June 7.
Tickets: $25 to $85. (Ticket prices subject to change.)
Info: (213) 628-2772, http://www.centertheatregroup.org
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes, with no intermission