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Entertainment & Arts

Review: ‘Barbecue’ at the Geffen finds a ferociously funny way into the subject of race and identity

From left, Omar J. Dorsey, Yvette Cason, Kimberly Hébert Gregory and Heather Alicia Simms in “Barbecue” at the Geffen Playhouse.
From left, Omar J. Dorsey, Yvette Cason, Kimberly Hébert Gregory and Heather Alicia Simms in “Barbecue” at the Geffen Playhouse.
(Jeff Lorch)

When playwright Robert O’Hara writes comedy, outrageousness is a given.

His play “Bootycandy,” a series of connected skits about growing up black and gay that was produced last year by Celebration Theatre, starts making ribald mischief with its title.

“Barbecue,” which is having its West Coast premiere at the Geffen Playhouse, is just as boldly flamboyant in marshaling caricatures. But there’s an unexpected difference.

The play begins with a white trailer trash crew that looks like it went AWOL from a savage Tracy Letts comedy that is inevitably going to take a bloody turn.

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Four siblings have gathered at a public park (believably conjured by scenic designer Sibyl Wickersheimer) to stage an intervention on behalf of their multiple-addicted sister Barbara. They’re feigning a good time to lure her to the party, but in the process their own drug and alcohol problems skid into view.

O’Hara, however, isn’t writing another play about a dysfunctional American family. In the next scene, the siblings’ race has changed from white to black. This is not the only fast one the playwright pulls on his audience. But the switching between white and black actors in the same roles is what keeps the audience laughing pretty much continuously for the first half of this comedy.

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The family pathology is so extreme that James T. carries a Taser and uses it — twice! First against sister Marie, who swigs Jack Daniel’s from the bottle and doesn’t want anyone rooting around in her purse, where she might just be carrying a little crack. (I don’t remember when a weapon has been deployed on stage to more hilarious effect.) The second time James reports having fired at Barbara, who has been known to conceal razor blades in her mouth for emergency situations and is thus found (after a stage blackout) bound and gagged for everyone’s safety.

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Actor, playwright and director Colman Domingo (who has a prominent role in one of the most anticipated films this fall, “The Birth of a Nation”) stages “Barbecue” with a kinetic kick. He elicits from his cast the kind of freedom usually reserved for stand-up acts and comic cabarets without diminishing the integrity and ambition of the playwriting.

The second act is less successful, though it’s difficult to explain in detail without giving away the play’s many surprises. O’Hara is investigating issues of identity and representation. Nobody is exactly who he or she seems. And characters bearing the same name turn out to be as different as they are similar.

Role-playing, apparently, is something that happens not just in front of the cameras. We’re all starring, 24-7, in our own biopics, desperate for the brass ring, which in American culture is perfectly epitomized by the Academy Award.

O’Hara has great fun mocking the whiteness of the Oscars in the final stretch of the play — a source of rocket fuel for a comedy that has started to peter out, even though “black movie star” Barbara, a pop singer determined to win an Oscar, has turned up channeling Beyoncé in fierce diva mode. 

“Barbecue,” like “Bootycandy,” coheres conceptually but has trouble sustaining momentum. O’Hara should be encouraged to write to his strengths. He’s a lampoonist with a trenchant take on American culture and a gift for ferociously satiric one-liners.

Structurally, his plays are more sophisticated than his down-and-dirty comedy might make them seem. But he would be better served by compressing his material.

Comedy shouldn’t have to labor to the finish line. I kept thinking of British playwright Caryl Churchill as an instructive example of a writer not afraid to ruthlessly distill her adventurous visions. I’d rather see O’Hara take a page out of her book than conform to more banal models of American playwriting.  

But laughter is the delectable sauce of “Barbecue.” Heather Alicia Simms’ Marie telling off the sister who asks her to open up her drug-filled purse (“I don’t have to go do nuthin but stay black and die”) is nearly as hilarious as the sight of her being stunned to the ground by brother James (Omar J. Dorsey offering a humorously straightforward take on this ludicrous picnic).

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Watching the different portrayals of Lillie Anne, the sister who wants to send Barbara to rehab, is fascinating with actors as textured as Frances Fisher and Yvette Cason tag-teaming the role.

There’s also something sneakily moving in the way Cherise Boothe and Rebecca Wisocky mirror Barbara to each other even though on the surface they have nothing at all in common. (Yes — spoiler alert  — the two casts eventually meet, but you’ll never guess how.)  

The fiction that is our identity, according to O’Hara, isn’t even skin deep. “Barbecue” raucously sends up the sociological pantomime — life as an award-seeking existential burlesque.

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‘Barbecue’

Where: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 16

Tickets: $43-$84 (subject to change)

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Information: (310) 208-5454 or www.geffenplayhouse.org

Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

Follow me @charlesmcnulty

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