Theater Review By Ron Fassler . . .
As someone who’s been attending the theatre for fifty years on a regular basis, I’ve grown nostalgic for a certain type of comedy that has nearly gone the way of the Dodo. Family comedies were once a staple of Broadway and they ruled. Perhaps the last one that achieved a wildly popular status, with a run of more than four years, was Albert Innaurato’s Gemini, about a messed up Italian family involving, among other things, a gay son. It closed in 1981 and now, forty years later, we have Douglas Lyons Chicken & Biscuits, in which a Black family gathers for a funeral. Like Gemini, it too has a gay son coming home, and both have major scenes which revolve around a big meal. Food and family and a little bit of sex; all necessary for sustenance and survival and ripe for comedy. And fraught with, shall we say, issues?
Lyons, an actor with Beautiful and The Book of Mormon among his credits, is making his Broadway debut as a playwright alongside Zhailon Levingston, making his Broadway debut as a director (he’s twenty-eight, the youngest Black man to achieve that status). As many as thirty members of this company are also making their Broadway debuts and Chicken & Biscuits does itself proud on that alone. It’s the first comedy to open post-pandemic and in the words of the slogan for the 1974 film That’s Entertainment!, “Boy, do we need it now.” What a joy to sit in a theatre again and be embraced by the happy sounds of laughter. Sadly, one of the reasons comedies like this one are so rare nowadays is the mistaken notion that they can be had on television a dime a dozen. Not so. There is nothing like the communal feeling shared in a theatre when jokes are landing and followed by applause on a great laugh line. Where cheering is not uncommon and even shout backs at the actors, which happened repeatedly at Circle in the Square, are not only welcomed, but encouraged.
The plot is nothing you haven’t already seen before, but as with most things well done, execution is everything. The family is gathered for the funeral of Baneatta’s father Bernard (referred to as B) who was Pastor at this Church (to which we’ve all been invited to participate). Her beloved husband Reggie has now taken over the duties as Pastor to run the ceremony in the well designed Church of colorful glass windows by Lawrence E. Moten III, including a portrait of a Black Jesus and Church pews that morph into whatever might be needed or missing on the set at St. Luke’s Church in New Haven, Ct. It’s all well lit by Adam Honore, with costumes by Dede Ayite and sound design by the first Black woman to light up a stage on Broadway, Twi McCallum.
What keeps it all fresh, however, is a perfect cast under Levingston’s able direction, who physicalize their characters with great affection and care. I’ve never seen an ensemble that have each mastered the art of walking as an extension of their characterizations to such hilarious degrees. From Cleo King’s tiny shuffle as Baneatta, the family matriarch, to the manic pop-culture crazed, loose-limbed Aigner Mizzelle’s young La’Trice. Add to that the strutting of Ebony Marshall-Oliver’s Beverly, the straight-backed and powerful presence of Norm Lewis’ Reggie, the dancing-on-air smooth moves of Devere Rogers’ Kenny, and the always reliable physical inventiveness of the wonderful Michael Urie as the outsider of the family, Logan, a “white boy” as La’Trice continually refers to him. As Kenny’s boyfriend of four years, poor Logan is not only a stranger in a strange land, but denied the simple respect of anybody taking the trouble to learn his name.
And if some of these jokes are reminiscent of Agnes Mooreheard’s Endora constantly mangling the name of her son-in-law Darrin on the sixties sitcom Bewitched, so what? Comedic playwrights have been recycling material since time immemorial. What matters most is whether you care about the characters and their situation. Even if painted in broad strokes, the underlying humanity in Lyons’ writing (he truly knows these people) saves the day. And the manner in which Levingston draws the truth in the comedy supplies the audience with a fine base on which to build the comedic situations.
Rounding out the cast are Alana Raquel Bowers as Simone, the eldest daughter, who can do more with her large eyes than most actors can do with their whole bodies and a late arrival in the play, NaTasha Yvette Williams as Brianna who, like Norm Lewis and Michael Urie, is one of but three in the company with major New York theatre credits. That every actor shines the way they do is testament to the nature of their ensemble playing.
Special mention must be made of the extended funeral sequence that is the play’s major set piece harkening back to 1970’s Purlie, (which I was fortunate enough to see as a thirteen-year-old). Its prologue and epilogue took place at a foot-stomping church funeral in the deep south. Though Norm Lewis doesn’t have a song to sing as Pastor Reggie, his powerful voice stirred the crowd to a standing ovation as he preached to the skies, practically opening a hole in the ceiling in the subterranean Circle in the Square – Amen!
With the bulk of this coming new Broadway season loaded with dramas (many of them by Black playwrights), its commendable that the producers of Chicken and Biscuits have taken the risk to see if the waters are strong enough to float all boats. There has to be room again for comedies of this type as it makes sense that audiences are hungry for this kind of escapism. The communal energy shared at its raucous opening night, and the very enthusiastic crowds seem to be in agreement. Chicken and Biscuits: “Boy, do we need it now.”
Chicken & Biscuits is at the Circle in the Square Theatre, 235 W 50th, New York, NY, now through January 3rd. Opened Oct. 10, 2021
Photos: Emilio Madrid