Review: ‘Chicken & Biscuits’ serves up roaring comedy

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Douglas Lyons’ Chicken & Biscuits, at Broadway’s Circle in the Square theater, is a savory comedy served with a sentimental edge. It’s an especially successful combo dish, though the play’s playful humor tends to fade in later scenes, as tensions between three generations of an African-American family are smoothly settled.

The setup is a familiar but reliably fertile formula: the gathering of a family with various bones to collect. The occasion here is actually the funeral of the family’s patriarch, Bernard, or B as the family all called him, the beloved pastor of a popular church in New Haven, Connecticut. His son-in-law, Reginald, presides over the services. (Broadway veteran Norm Lewis), who inherited the robes and responsibilities of the pastor.

But a more powerful layer of the law in the family is his wife, the eldest daughter of Bernard Baneatta, in whom Cleo King imbues the kind of righteousness – or self-righteousness, some would say – that seems to surround her with an aura of authority. Baneatta is a woman who is always on the lookout for something or someone to disapprove of. “Lord, help me to keep my eyes on the front,” she said in a moment of private prayer.

Naturally, family members arriving for the funeral provide plenty of fodder for those ready-to-roll eyes. The main target of Baneatta’s grim looks is her younger sister Beverly (Ebony Marshall-Oliver), who opted to wear a gold-splashed dress with a short skirt and a equally sequined jacket however, this does not hide much from her “puppies”, as she often refers to her breasts. There is also the matter of her brightly hued blue hair. Her daughter, La’Trice (Aigner Mizzelle), is clearly inspired by her mother: she has neon braids in her hair and neon makeup on her face.

The presence of Michael Urie’s Logan Leibowitz, her son’s (unrecognized but not cheating) Jewish boyfriend, Kenny (Devere Rogers), distracts Baneatta from his frozen annoyance at her sister’s wayward ways. Baneatta expresses his long-standing dismay at their union by willfully and repeatedly mistaking Logan’s name – the one joke in a room full of tangy bites that Lyons instead overloads.

Pretty much the only family member fully welcomed by Baneatta is her daughter, Simone (Alana Raquel Bowers), who nevertheless arrives in a cloud of sadness, after her fiance has just left her – for a white woman. Simone’s relationship with her brother, Kenny, whose sexuality and mate choice (white) she also doesn’t approve of, isn’t exactly comfortable.

After making a stew of potential family conflicts, Lyons continues to stir the pot with impressive skill, resulting in a church service that gradually turns into a raucous and funny party, as tensions and antagonisms erupt and eventually catch on fire. . Lyons, who has also appeared on Broadway as an actor, certainly gives his cast a lot to chew on, and under the generally quick-witted Zhailon Levingston, they chew. But I must add that the decor, by Lawrence E. Moten III, which effectively transforms the Circle in the Square auditorium into a large church, remains indigestible: the performances are often dazzlingly funny and moments of physical humor abound. , but the actors stay firmly rooted in character.

The biggest ball up there is probably Marshall-Oliver as carefree troublemaker Beverly, who clearly enjoys getting under her sister’s skin. But as deliciously spicy as her performance is, Marshall-Oliver also exudes an invigorating warmth; Beverly may be reckless and reckless, but her heart is full. As La’Trice, who has clearly inherited not only her mother’s sartorial sense but her mischievous personality as well, Mizzelle is also a living presence, especially when she slyly blackmails Logan to “eat, eat, eat. happening ”when she finds him escaping the ward to calm his nerves by vaping weed.

Logan of Uriah, in the classic role of Fish Out of Water (he’s the only white character), is also a continual provider of fun, as Logan gets more and more shaken – and no one does better than him. ‘Uriah – unwittingly ending up. threw a ‘Get Out’ backwards, “as he hilariously puts it, adding,” And we all know how it ended. ”

The other characters offer less obvious opportunities to laugh, but they are all well rendered. Lewis may have the most ungrateful role, but with his magnificent dark rum baritone he is perfectly interpreted as a pastor, his magnificent voice slowly soaring as he begins (finally) the eulogy of his step-in-law. father. Like Kenny, one of the less overtly comedic characters, Rogers is nonetheless a sympathetic presence. And while she’s mostly there to party, Simone de Bowers has one of the best moments in the room, when, discussing the betrayal of her fiancé, she asserts that when she sees white, she sees of red – while still gazing coldly at the audience (we are unofficially chosen as funeral attendees), which is, this being Broadway, has no shortage of white faces.

It’s around the start of official service that the room begins to sag a bit, as Lyon pivot towards moments of painful reconciliation. (It doesn’t help that each member of the family says a few words from the pulpit – or rather more than a few -) The show recalls the general humor and unabashed sentimentality found in work. by filmmaker and playwright Tyler Perry. But some of the more emotional engagements between characters feel more fully realized than others – Kenny’s confrontation with Simone over his unspoken disapproval of his sexuality seems a bit worn out at this point – and others are just being crushed. .

Nonetheless, Lyon are successfully navigating the play’s big reveal, which obviously won’t be revealed here. I can tell he’s referring to a long-buried family secret, and that Natasha Yvette Williams, arriving late to this particular night, nonetheless brings a powerful wounded gravity to her relatively minor role.

“Chicken & Biscuits” is more successful as a roaring comedy than as an in-depth exploration of family dynamics. But given the choice, I’ll take the gags. The play offers the audience the blessed release of almost continual laughter, which we probably all need.

“Chicken & Biscuits” opened at the Circle in the Square Theater on October 10, 2021.

Critic’s photo: Emilio Madrid.

Creative: Written by Douglas Lyons; Original music by Michael O. Mitchell; Directed by Zhailon Levingston; Stage design by Lawrence E. Moten III; Costume design by Dede Ayite; Lighting design by Adam Honoré; Sound design by Twi McCallum.

Producers: Pamela Ross, Hunter Arnold, E. Clayton Cornelious, Leah Michalos, Kayla Greenspan, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Nick Jonas, Mapleseed Productions, Curt Cronin, John Joseph, John Paterakis and Invisible Wall Productions / Blaine Hopkins.

Cast: Cleo King, Norm Lewis, Michael Urie, Alana Raquel Bowers, Ebony Marshall-Oliver, Aigner Mizzelle, Devere Rogers and NaTasha Yvette Williams.


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