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Robert O'Hara plays with reality in his new comedy at the Public Theater.

Paul Niebanck, Becky Ann Baker, Samantha Soule, Constance Shulman, and Arden Myrin in Robert O'Hara's Barbecue, directed by Kent Gash, at the Public Theater.
(© Joan Marcus)

Robert O'Hara's Barbecue is a wild theatrical experience that defies logic and explanation, a work so full of bombshells that the ushers don't even dispense programs until intermission. To describe the plot is to divulge one spoiler after another, but, in an era where most writers can only muster up parody, O'Hara has created a true satire, laden with as much humor as there is criticism.

In an email sent before the show, the press team at the Public Theater, where this production is running, noted that there are huge reveals within O'Hara's crackling script and Kent Gash's imaginative production, and asked reviewers to use "wise discretion on what you reveal…so that future audiences can still be surprised at the play when they see it." And they weren't kidding. No one in good conscience should reveal all of the plot machinations within Barbecue, because they're so unbelievably bizarre and amusing that they really need to be experienced firsthand.

All you need to go in knowing is that Barbecue is set in a park in Middle America, where the O'Malley siblings are about to stage an intervention for their crackhead sister, Barbara (Samantha Soule). James T. (Paul Niebanck) is Barbara's Budweiser-swilling, pothead brother who brought along a Taser and rope, just in case just in case things get out of hand. Also along for the ride are her sisters, Adlean (Constance Shulman), a pill popper thanks to the "cancer in my titty," and Marie (Arden Myrin), who is well on her way to becoming a crackhead, despite having seen the toll that crack has taken on her family. The responsible sibling in this mess of a family, Lillie Anne (Becky Ann Baker), is the one who has arranged the barbecue in the hopes of convincing Barbara to go to rehab.

The cast of Barbecue is a lot more diverse than the five actors whose names have just been mentioned in parentheses. Marc Damon Johnson, Kim Wayans, Heather Alicia Simms, Benja Kay Thomas, and Tamberla Perry all have vital roles in the piece, but revealing their names and explaining their relationship to the story would ruin the first of many scream-laugh revelations. Regardless, O'Hara has created 10 juicy roles that his actors eat right up.


Structurally, Barbecue is similar to O'Hara's last play in New York, Bootycandy. Like that rollicking comedy, Barbecue features a meta-moment at the end of the first act that sets a stylistically different second half in motion. It's a jarring shift at first, and some will no doubt find it gimmicky, but O'Hara isn't doing it for the shock value. He's asking a very bold question: In a society that excessively consumes entertainment purporting to be "reality," how easy is it to trick people into believing just about anything?

With that question in mind, Gash has created a physical production that's inherently theatrical, but still human. His actors are fearlessly larger-than-life, but they deliver performances that are more than just broadly drawn stereotypes. Clint Ramos provides a wide-open set that combines skinny gray trees with neon-green images of a densely populated forest (adding Jason Lyons' lighting into the mix makes it the brightest of sunny days). Paul Tazewell's costumes define the personalities of each individual character — and when you have a play that's populated with figures as eccentric as this, that's saying a lot.

O'Hara uses his boisterous characters and genuinely funny dialogue to condemn the flippancy of an image-obsessed world. That he does so in such an unexpected fashion is worthy of applause in and of itself. But the fact that everything is given equal weight and thought, and is presented with such audacious originality, sets it far apart from the competition. Easily one of the funniest plays of the year and one of the most searing appraisals of contemporary culture, Barbecue proves O'Hara can cook with gas.