The new comedy proves God has a sense of humor when matching siblings together.
It is not surprising that beloved TV mom Phylicia Rashad takes the helm of the new familial comedy Immediate Family at the Mark Taper Forum. The former matriarch of The Cosby Show uses her eight years of living in a TV family to help her actors form credible performances as brothers and sisters who argue, laugh, and horseplay just like siblings who have spent much of their lives together, adding something very special to this average comedy.
The Bryant kids gather at their parents' house in Chicago for a wedding. The youngest, Tony (Kamal Angelo Bolden), acts like he's still in college, awakening after 2pm and lounging around the house in his boxers. But that will have to change after he gets married this weekend. His older sister Evy (Shanésia Davis) has inherited the house from their late parents and has become the family substitute mother, whether anyone asked for her to or not. Ronnie (Cynda Williams) was their religious father's illegitimate, mixed-race daughter whom he abandoned. She has only reconnected with the family since their father's death three years ago. The prodigal son, Jesse (Bryan Terrell Clark), returns home from Minneapolis with his Swedish boyfriend, despite never discussing his sexuality with his family in the past. The siblings spent their time together drinking a lot, eating, pulling each other's hair, and playing cards.
Playwright Paul Oakley Stoval has crafted a funny play, but over time the jokes feel like overkill and the play devolves into a 90-minute sit-com. Stoval hammers home talking points that could have been rewarding if they were more subtle. Everyone seems like an archetype: the overgrown child, the controlling big sister, the alcoholic prodigal child, the son who was expected to replace the patriarch only to disappoint with his sexuality. Rashad may have helped the cast build their chemistry, but she's also responsible for setting the TV comedy tone, turning every sentence into a punch line.
The cast takes stock in their roles commendably. Davis projects narcissism and dominance as the high school teacher who stresses the importance of African-American leaders, as long as they fit her moral structure. She is dismissive and resentful that she had to raise her brothers, and determined that everyone else's life choices are a reflection on her. As the goofy man-child, Bolden embodies the family baby. He waits for others to carry his responsibilities, he's youthfully energetic and he pays attention to more than people realize. Williams plays a lonely drunk without resorting to exaggerations. Her reactions are slightly dulled, and she slurs her words but in a subtle way. Clark carries the burden of being gay in a religious family within his body language and uncertain voice. He makes the audience care about him despite an indecisive nature. Mark Jude Sullivan, as the secret boyfriend, conveys a European sensibility and sensitivity perfectly. His accent is natural and consistent. Built as the comic relief, J. Nicole Brooks could have benefited most from a more disciplinarian director. Her hyperactivity is funny, but she keeps her energy and volume level at 11 throughout the evening.
John Iacovelli's sets make good use of the play space, fitting several rooms and a backyard to further add to his landscape of middle-class suburbia. ESosa's costumes are modern and hip while still maintaining their realism. Joshua Horvath's music contributes to the '70s sitcom feeling with a twang reminiscent of the television show What's Happening, throwing in some early '80s R&B for good measure.
The disconnect between evangelical religion and homosexuality is still an American hot topic, as can be seen from mud already being slung in the early days of Election 2016; however, Paul Oakley Stovall has utilized the situations in a dated way, pulling in storylines told decades ago in the likes of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and Norman, Is That You? Though it's clear these storylines can still affect people today, Immediate Family does not lend itself to immediate relevance of the topic at hand.