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Theatre in Review: Chicken and Biscuits (Circle in the Square Theatre)

Photo: Emilio Madrid

Chicken and Biscuits is both a throwback and a sign of the times. It's part of the trend of new plays by Black writers (and with Black creative teams) that is a big feature of this Broadway season, a possible herald of lasting change. At the same time, it's the kind of easygoing domestic comedy that reigned on Broadway for decades before fading out in the 1970s. The retro aspect is, oddly, the most intriguing: Is there a live audience for the sort of gag-laden effort that long-ago migrated to television? One that isn't too choosy about where it finds its laughs? And isn't too worried about predictability or consistent characters? I guess we're about to find out.

"It ain't a funeral! It's a celebration!" So says someone early on, cueing a round robin of family dysfunctions at the funeral for a beloved New Haven minister. Chicken and Biscuits gets to the celebration part, all right, but not before everyone on hand, most of them descended from the Reverend Bernard Jenkins, gets to settle his or her hash with so-called loved ones. And, believe me, there's plenty of hash to settle -- sibling rivalries, childhood grievances, homophobia, and buried secrets.

The deceased's elder daughter, Baneatta, an accomplished academic, begins with a prayer: "Lord, help me keep my eyeballs rolled forward, as they have a tendency to roll backwards around foolishness." The prime cause of such ocular activity is her sister, Beverly, an Atlanta hairdresser with aqua hair; a ruffled, flashily bespangled wardrobe that leaves little to the imagination; and a decolletage of which she is inordinately proud: Bending over, she asks La'Trice, her 15-year-old-daughter, "How do the puppies look?" La'Trice is a social media addict with far too much makeup, an unfiltered mouth, and a knack for demanding presents from anyone nearby. Their presence all but guarantees that Baneatta's desire for a dignified, tasteful ceremony will be toast.

Baneatta, who is married to Reginald (her father's successor in the ministry), also has a pair of problem children. Simone, recently dumped by her fiancé, is sick of perpetually playing second fiddle to her brother Kenny. The semi-closeted Kenny -- he is out, but nobody in the family wants to talk about it -- shows up with Logan Leibowitz, his neurotic longtime boyfriend. Logan is a nervous wreck about being the only white person at the service; he is also terrified of Baneatta, who barely acknowledges his existence. "My chakra is sending me an amber alert," he warns.

As you can tell, the characters speak sitcom, the language in which the punch line is everything. "You need to read a book," Beverly tells La'Trice, who is glued to her phone. "I am reading," the girl replies. "Facebook." That's the level we're on here. The laughs generally come from other sources. Director Zhailon Levingston amusingly stages Logan and Baneatta's greeting in slow motion, the better to take in her limp, withholding handshake and his deep mortification. Sound designer Twi McCallum delivers the voice of an offstage church lady crucifying "Amazing Grace," causing the characters to visibly wilt. And Michael Urie, a great clown, communicates Logan's mounting social panic in a riotous combination of semaphore waves and Martha Graham dance gestures. It's time for someone to cast him in a Feydeau farce.

But Chicken and Biscuits suffers from a tedious, drawn-out structure, taking its time introduce the characters before then segueing into a lengthy series of eulogies followed by breakout groups in which characters confront each other in pairs, laboriously laying to rest long-buried resentments. A bombshell revelation about the deceased, courtesy of a mystery attendee, adds new complications at the eleventh hour, extending the running time and testing one's patience.

That surprise announcement also adds to a prevailing sense of unreality; it's hard to believe that these broadly drawn caricatures have any kind of shared history. At one point, somebody says to Baneatta and Beverly, "You two can't see it, but y'all are the perfect pair." Actually, they seem like virtual strangers. And, aside from a sermon that allows him to briefly showcase his glorious voice, Norm Lewis, as Reginald, seems strangely disconnected from the proceedings. We barely see him interacting with his son and daughter and his marriage to Baneatta badly wants fleshing out.

Anyway, Cleo King gives Baneatta a fearsome authority; Devere Rogers amuses as Kenny, frantically trying to cover up Logan's many faux pas; and NaTasha Yvette Williams underplays nicely as the interloper who exposes a family scandal. Tackling the difficult Circle in the Square space, Lawrence E. Moten provides an attractive chapel setting -- especially the hanging lantern fixtures and pastel-colored stained glass -- which, aided by Adam Honoré's deft lighting, stands in several other locations. Dede Ayite's costumes have their amusing touches, including a feathered hat for Beverly that looks like a bird of prey, but she may have gone a little too over the top in designing Beverly and La'Trice's bizarrely inappropriate outfits.

The evidence suggests that audiences returning to Broadway are looking for an uncomplicated good time, so Chicken and Biscuits may be just the thing. But a two-hour-and-ten-minute running time is awfully long for a one-act play with a meandering structure and an ending that can be predicted well in advance. Instead of a strong dramatic line, the action is cluttered with petty squabbles. Near the end, Williams' character says, "I think there's been more love here along, but everybody else's mess was in the way." Yes, but there's so much mess.--David Barbour

(12 October 2021)

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