Arts

Review: In ‘Chicken & Biscuits,’ a Sweet but Dated Comedic Recipe

“Why we gotta wear black, huh? We alreadyBlack!”

So grouses Beverly, the kind of woman who features aquamarine hair and a peek-a-boo push-up bra at a funeral.

To be specific: her father’s funeral. “We should be honoring my Daddy in style, color!” she proclaims. Certainly the deceased — the late pastor of a church in New Haven, Conn. — has complied; he’s heading to the Pearly Gates in a canary yellow tie.

“Canary yellow was his favorite,” Beverly explains. “And he wore it like a pimp!”

As I sat alternately laughing and cringing in the audience of “Chicken & Biscuits,” a play by Douglas Lyons that opened on Sunday at Circle in the Square Theater, I couldn’t help thinking that Beverly was voicing more than a personal, sartorial truth. In her impatience with tragedy, her gaudy antics and her beeline for fun, she was also delivering what may be the play’s mission statement. This family comedy, with its cheek and secrets and eulogies and amens, wants to offer audiences living in bad times an old-fashioned good one.

Whether it succeeds for you will depend largely on your taste for Broadway comedies of a type that otherwise went out of style a few decades ago. These were supposedly heartwarming domestic stories in which “ethnic” families like the Italian American Geminianis in “Gemini” and the Jewish Chamberses in “Norman, Is That You?” aired dirty laundry (typically involving a gay son) while reaffirming the notion that love conquers all, among kin no less than country.

Sidestepping the traffic of somber, formally inventive new plays about Black life, “Chicken & Biscuits” eagerly boards that rickety old bus. To start, there are the requisite squabbling siblings: Beverly (Ebony Marshall-Oliver) and her sister, Baneatta (Cleo King), representing opposite ends of the bawdy-to-churchy continuum. Beverly resents Baneatta’s attitude of superiority; Baneatta, whose tenured professorship seems to be in Disapproval Studies, scorns Beverly’s down-market outfits and outlook.

Lewis plays a pastor hoping to prove himself, while also trying to help his wife, played by King, navigate her family’s complicated dynamics at a funeral.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Theirs is but one of the thin and mild conflicts that the production, directed by Zhailon Levingston, stirs mightily to bring to a boil. On the day of the funeral, Baneatta’s husband, Reginald, will be delivering the eulogy, hoping to prove himself a suitable successor to his father-in-law in the pulpit. (With Norm Lewis in the role, could there ever be any doubt?) Reginald is also hoping that family hysteria will not overtake family healing in the process.

Apparently, he has not met his family, or even his own children: the tightly wound, high-achieving, 30-something Simone (Alana Raquel Bowers) and her younger brother, Kenny (Devere Rogers), a struggling actor and the de rigueur gay son. Each comes factory supplied with a pressing problem. Simone has recently been dumped by her fiancé, who took up with a white woman instead. Kenny’s problem is also white: Logan Leibowitz, the Jewish boyfriend (and fellow struggling actor) he has brought to the funeral unannounced.

Though Simone repeatedly refers to the couple, with a smirk, as “thespians,” and Baneatta simply ignores the interloper, no one disapproves of Kenny’s gayness deeply enough to prevent a happy hug of an ending. All of the characters’ characteristics are red herrings, and usually stale ones at that. Beverly’s outrageousness recalls that of innumerable stock characters from Tyler Perry’s plays, Black sitcoms of the 1970s and Chitlin’ Circuit farces. Logan (Michael Urie) is a gay stereotype so flittery he cannot follow the service; as he flips madly through the Bible, he asks, “Where’s Corinthians? Is this in alphabetical order?”

You will detect in Logan and Beverly — and in Beverly’s sarcastic Gen Z daughter, La’Trice (Aigner Mizzelle) — a kind of equal opportunity minstrelsy. In some ways, trotting out laughable stereotypes of a modern Black family and its white appendages seems almost daring on Broadway today. One of the highlights of Levingston’s production, which can otherwise feel bloated at two hours, comes when Simone, apologizing for her kneejerk hostility toward Logan, says, “Since the breakup, it’s been real hard for me not to see red when I see white people.” Levingston lets this moment sit a good long time, waiting for the (mostly white) audience to get the joke.

In their performances, Marshall-Oliver, from left, Urie and Aigner Mizzelle evoke outrageous stock characters of the deep — and recent — past.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Such insight and provocation is otherwise rare in “Chicken & Biscuits.” So is any real tension. Whether the family will accept Logan, whether the sisters will reconcile, whether the mystery guest at the funeral (NaTasha Yvette Williams) will be explained are barely even questions; they’re more like a packing list. In that sense, the play feels dramatically complacent and underdeveloped, suggesting that its trip to Broadway after a pandemic-foreshortened run at the Queens Theater in 2020 might have benefited from a stop along the way.

Yet it’s at least a little unfair to look at a family comedy that way. Lyons, an actor himself before turning to playwriting — this is his Broadway debut as an author, and Levingston’s as a director — is operating here in a different tradition from most contemporary fare, which is built on ideas and argumentation.

“Chicken & Biscuits” is built on sensation, more like a musical or even an opera. In the long scene of the funeral itself, the eulogies by several family members function as arias, delivered in the old-school park-and-bark style. They are not concerned with forwarding the action so much as bringing aural pleasure, and indeed Lewis’s satire of a preacherly stemwinder, with drawn out vowels and pounced-on syncopations, is more than halfway to song.

In any case, Lyons is more interested in the family’s moment-by-moment byplay — its laugh track and tear track — than in drawing realistic character portraits or scoring sociological points. The cast, including five actors also making their Broadway debuts, for the most part fills in the characters’ outlines confidently. As for sociological points, you could hardly say more in a treatise than Dede Ayite does with the costumes and Nikiya Mathis with the wigs.

So if “Chicken & Biscuits” isn’t a profound work, that doesn’t mean it’s pointless. Its gravy is just another name for schmaltz. Thinking back, as a Jew, on the Jewish families that Broadway audiences learned to love in not-very-sophisticated, high-cholesterol comedies, I have to admit that even as I alternately laughed and cringed at their caricatures, I felt relieved of the more pernicious problem of otherness.

Representation matters. I see many great and necessary new works about the problem of Blackness in a racist society — or rather, the problem of whiteness. They are filled with anguish and unfunny funerals. What I rarely get to see are works about Black American life that are defiantly not problem plays. Their sunniness is just as necessary, however garish the aquamarine and pimped-out the corpse.

Chicken & Biscuits

Through Jan. 2 at Circle in the Square Theater, Manhattan; 212-239-6200, chickenandbiscuitsbway.com. Running time: 2 hours.

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