Chicken & Biscuits Is Not Nutritious, But It Is Delicious
Top-notch comedic performances bolster Douglas Lyons's new family comedy at Circle in the Square Theatre.
Funerals are like family hotboxes. They combine the tense togetherness of Thanksgiving with the added burdens of grief, public speaking, and resentments that you can only hope are aimed at estranged relatives, not deceased ones. Drama is at the ready, and, as Douglas Lyons's dysfunctional family play Chicken & Biscuits proves, so is comedy.
Chicken & Biscuits (Lyons's Broadway playwriting debut) has sincere, sentimental moments, but it really finds itself among that rarest class of productions that make it past the Broadway gatekeepers: pure entertainment. Unless it's a big-budget musical, Broadway audiences typically order their theater with a side of spinach, as if it's not worth the ticket price unless you leave a little wiser and sadder. With that said, if you're hoping to exit Circle in the Square Theatre with anything more substantial than an aphoristic message about the value of kith and kin putting differences aside for the sake of love and community, you may be less than satisfied. However, if you're willing to commit the cardinal sin of going to the theater for fun, you'll have a finger-lickin' good time.
The funeral for beloved Jenkins family patriarch Bernard is the unholy event that brings his disgruntled loved ones together for this fine day at church (the play's name is inspired by Bernard's favorite meal). It's the first time many of these folks have seen each other since the last family funeral, for Bernard's wife, 10 years ago, and there are dukes up in every corner.
At the eye of the storm are Bernard's daughters: The elder, Baneatta (Cleo King), who has several master's degrees, two children, and a handsome pastor husband Reginald Mabry (Norm Lewis); and Beverly (Ebony Marshall-Oliver), a single mother to almost-16-year-old La'Trice (Aigner Mizzelle), who shares her mother's rejection of all things modest, quiet, and conventional. Costume designer Dede Ayite sets Baneatta's fashionable yet modest ensemble against Beverly's busty strapless dress that has, at most, a nod to funeral black. Hair and wig designer Nikiya Mathis gives Baneatta a neatly appointed shiny coiffure to contrast Beverly's Smurf-blue mermaid tale (La'Trice, however, may still win the award for most color worn to an interment).
These two sisters have taken different paths and neither wants to hear a peep of judgment from the other on the day of their father's funeral. Of course, streams of judgment are everywhere in the Jenkins family and not even a tragedy can dam them. Tensions run high around Baneatta's actor son Kenny (Devere Rogers) and his Jewish (and blindingly white) boyfriend Logan Leibowitz (Michael Urie), who braces himself for cold shoulders and light homophobia, even as Kenny tries to calm his fears and sell him on the theatricality of Black church (set designer Lawrence E. Moten III delivers on that promise of theatricality with his colorful space, flanked by portraits of Black Jesus, that encourages the spirit to move us all). Kenny's older sister Simone (Alana Raquel Bowers), meanwhile, is fresh off a breakup and enters the proceedings with an iciness that sweet La'Trice tries to melt with some familial bonding.
In the world of Chicken & Biscuits, subtleties are as scarce as the stakes. And yet, this cast sells their hyperbolic comedy so well that it makes little difference what the play's flimsy plot is even driving at (though the nearly two-hour-no-intermission run time makes a strong argument for a trim). We have some sibling rivalry over here, a little interracial conflict over there, some long-buried family secrets bubbling under there (no spoilers, but this is where the underutilized Natasha Yvette Williams comes in) – but none of it amounts to much more than an excuse for these performers to do what they do best.
Director Zhailon Levingston clearly luxuriates in this privilege to turn his actors up to 11 with full confidence that none will send the production flying through the roof. King's straitlaced yet scathing Baneatta is a delightful foil to Marshall-Oliver's flamboyant Beverly, who remains lovable through all her bulldozing antics. Mizzelle shares that quality as her onstage daughter La'Trice, stealing scenes as a filterless teenager with delusions of rap stardom and a heart of gold. She even holds her own next to Urie, who, with the harried physical comedy that allowed him to carry the one-man play Buyer & Cellar, makes 10 times more of his character Logan than is on the page. Rogers and Bowers, as siblings Kenny and Simone, are largely sounding boards for the comedic performances swirling around them, but they do get to share the play's most heartfelt scene — a little rhythmically out of sync with the rest of Chicken & Biscuits but lovely nonetheless.
The bulk of Lyons's play is contained in its lengthy bill of eulogies, buttoned by a Norm Lewis gospel show for the ages (it would be sacrilege to put his singing voice to waste, even if the performance makes his character Reginald break out into a flop sweat). Baked into these alternatingly long-winded, hilarious, saccharine, touching, trite, and unexpected speeches (not to mention their plentiful interjections) is the crux of the experience of Chicken & Biscuits. You don't know where you're going, but it's taking you to church.