Anyone can tell you that a family barbecue is a lot like the food on offer—wildly dependent on the ingredients. Contentious cousins, simmering siblings, venomous elders: There are plenty of ways for things to go wrong at the best of times, and in Robert O’Hara’s worlds-within-worlds comedy Barbecue, it seems as though everything is going sideways until a series of curveballs redefines what we’ve thought was true.
The first act takes place at a public park amid Joseph Stanley’s set and Karin Olson’s lighting design—you can almost smell the charcoal—where four siblings assemble for a not-so-wholesome cookout (the pills and Jack Daniel’s come out long before sundown). They’re all waiting for their sister Barbara, who we’re told puts all others to shame in her dedication to consuming mass quantities of illegal drugs and singular devotion to aggressive madness.
There’s a cartoonish quality to the (very funny) early action that makes proper sense a bit later. And we’re on our heels when, after the first scene, the all-white cast leaves and is replaced by African-American actors playing the same characters, in the same costumes, still quaking in anxiety over the impending arrival of what we can only assume is the love child of Amy Winehouse and the Tasmanian Devil. It’s almost a shame when we learn the reason for the cast shift is more prosaic than metaphoric.
It’s difficult to call out individual performances in these rotating scenes because the ensemble work is so seamless (Thomas W. Jones II directs and acts), with the rhythms of O’Hara’s lowdown profanity-laced dialogue rendered with firecracker gusto. Regina Marie Williams evinces the crumbling self-righteousness of a woman with a dirty secret in her purse; Stephen Yoakam’s jumpy ne’er do well scans the perimeter like someone accustomed to fleeing the cops; and Aimee K. Bryant plays an overbearing sibling with appropriate undercurrents of desperation.
It turns out that the family is conspiring to make Barbara do something she will very much resist: sober up, under professional care, and several time zones away. For a moment here, there’s a sense of something sneakily serious: the degree to which so many in our society live every day under various doses of anesthesia—not to mention the questionable wisdom of throwing stones from houses made of glass.
Turns out such reflection isn’t meant to last. A surprise at the end of the first act leaves us scratching our heads going into the second—which is essentially a different play entirely (taking place at the same park picnic ground). O’Hara weaves a trap door into the proceedings that tickles nicely as we connect the dots, although as the evening progresses ultimately undermines the show’s ability to credibly claim any sort of dramatic gravity.
Before we get there, though, there are a couple of undeniably terrific performances. Jevetta Steele transforms from a wild-eyed hostage in the first act into a haughty superstar diva in the second, commanding and cynical, at one point expressing dominance with a physical move that relays more about her character than several hundred words of dialogue. And Sandra Struthers as a confabulating memoirist is equal parts feral uncertainty and assured calculation; her prolonged scenes with Steele are captivating and legitimately dangerous.
Unfortunately, the dramatic air is coming out of the balloon even while Steele and Struthers thrust and parry. Without ruining the final scenes, I have to assume our takeaway when the lights come up is meant to be a combined meditation on superficiality, artifice, and the vacuity of celebrity—unfortunately, it also leaves us with considerable missed opportunities for the audience to actually invest and care about the plight of the characters. In any case, they do win on their own terms at the end, even if we’re left feeling like we’ve been through an exercise that opted to hide its heart from us just as we were craving connection.
at Mixed Blood Theatre
through October 16
Extra: Read about Mixed Blood’s policy of Radical Hospitality and founder Jack Reuler here.