There is no shortage of plays about damaged families. We love watching dysfunctional clans assemble for a wedding, a funeral, or anything in between, if only to remind us that whatever petty rivalries we may have in our family, we’re not all that bad. Robert O’Hara’s dark comedy Barbecue, produced by Strawdog Theatre Company and performed at Steppenwolf‘s 1700 Theatre, introduces the O’Mallery family, a group as troubled as any seen onstage recently.
The long-suffering Lillie Anne O’Mallery (Barbara Figgins) is trying to keep the peace between her motley crew of siblings: pill-popping Adlean (Kristin Collins), conspiracy theorist Marie (Anita Deely), and the disinterested James T. (John Henry Roberts). The middle-aged, working-class white family snipes, bickers, and breaks out old grudges as they await the arrival of Barbara, nicknamed "Zippity-Boom," their hard-drinking, crack-smoking sister. This family barbecue, it turns out, is just an attempt to lure Barbara out to the park for an intervention.
Before Barbara can arrive, the scene cuts to a blackout. When the lights return, the O’Mallerys have been replaced. They have the same names, they’re wearing the same costumes, but this time they’re played by black actors, and their behavior goes from bad to worse. Marie, now played with deranged confidence by standout Celeste M. Cooper, has been hitting her bottle of Jack Daniels hard, James T. (Terence Sims) breaks out his Taser, and Lillie Anne and Adlean (Deanna Reed Foster and Kamille Dawkins) can’t agree on anything. The two casts switch places yet again before Barbara arrives, but just when the audience is settling into this concept, Barbecue transforms yet again.
The twist is certainly surprising, but the change in focus does not improve the play. Barbecue’s first act is an incisive meta-exploration of audience perception and racial stereotypes. Now and then it veers into potentially offensive territory, but it does so in the pursuit of self-awareness. Its second act devolves into a cynical showbiz satire that doesn't add much to the conversation. Sharply comedic performances by Ginneh Thomas and Abby Pierce buoy the second act, but fail to save it.
At its best, Robert O’Hara’s dialogue is raucous, with the talented ensemble cast showcasing the script’s sense of rhythm and wicked one-liners. But more often than not, his humor fails to land, especially when skewering Hollywood and celebrity culture. Guided by director Damon Kiely, there is some strong physical comedy early in the play, but the staging is otherwise unremarkable.
This hit-or-miss aesthetic carries into Barbecue‘s design. The public park that hosts Zippity-Boom’s intervention is rendered with middling success in Joanna Iwanicka’s set: the realistic grit of the benches and the barbecue itself are mismatched with the impressionistic sky. Aly Renee Amidei’s costumes are clever when they’re serving double duty on two different casts, but as the play’s focus shifts to Hollywood, the clothes never quite read as luxe as they’re supposed to.
Barbecue brings all the ingredients for an interesting and relevant dark comedy, but it adds one twist too many and overcooks the whole thing.