Beneath Barbecue’s jokes there’s little but a chic cynicism.
Barbecue by Robert O’Hara. Directed by Summer L. Williams. Produced by the Lyric Stage Company, Boston, MA, through May 7.
By Bill Marx
Some plays have no ideas, some have too many, and some have just one. African-American dramatist Robert O’Hara’s Barbecue takes a number of twisty turns, but the script quickly wears out its single idea: a thin expose of the power of deception. I wanted to review this production after reading the critical hozannas that greeted the staging of O’Hara’s Bootycandy at the SpeakEasy Stage Company. I was prepared for the show’s broad humor, but assumed that underneath the caricature the script would offer some sharp, meaningful pokes at the way things are. But Barbecue moves along with resolute superficiality, assisted by the lively kick of Summer L. Williams’s direction and a cast that is (far too) prone to mugging. The result is an (admiring?) celebration of scamming that might well make it the first official play of the Trump era.
Barbecue’s zigzag plot is its major attraction, so a critic must be circumspect. Its initial scenes give us two families gathering in a public park — one white, the other black. Each group is preparing to stage an intervention for a female member addicted to crack. Both clans are loud, insulting, and cartoonish — there’s some humor generated at the expense of the vulgar bottom class, but all the ball-scratching, screeching, substance abusing, and squabbling grows tiresome. The inept families mess up the planned intervention; the gal is supposed to agree to go to a rehab facility in Alaska called Halcyon Dreams. The script then takes a number of surprising turns. O’Hara’s aim is to flip conventional notions of drug addiction, family dynamics, true confessions, racial identity, and stardom on their heads. But upending stereotypes doesn’t necessarily provide a fresh perspective — the same old is just as depressingly recognizable after it has been tossed topsy turvy. An attack on shallowness can be just as shallow as its target.
Like many contemporary American plays, Barbecue tells the audience what it is about. No bothersome ambiguity allowed. A major character informs us that everybody lies, succeeding through subterfuge, bullying, manipulation, or bribery. And that is the hollow nub of O’Hara’s message — fame and fortune can be won by conjuring up “alternative realities,” fibbing your way to the big payoff. Is this jaundiced view news to anybody? Lying as a winning strategy is far from being stigmatized in the era of Trump — it is modus operandi, the mechanics of negotiation. The powerful and their corporations prevaricate with the ease. What’s weird is that O’Hara provides no counter to this vision of corruption, no sense of the price that is paid — in pain or emptiness — when people embrace an existence based on dispensing illusion for the sake of profit. The irony is that a play that centers on drug addiction — at a time the opioid epidemic is in the headlines — lacks any compelling sense of loss, desperation, physical debilitation, or futility. Just a cheerful revelation of the benefits of chicanery.
So, beneath the show’s jokes, there’s little but a chic cynicism. Picasso said that “Art is a lie that tells the truth.” But we are all wised up now — the bottom line is that we all lie. So much, apparently, for mainstream American theater companies daring to #resist authority: why bother, when everyone is in on the take? (Note: The Trump years will reveal a troubling truth. Contrary to marketing proclamations about being ‘provocative’ and ‘disruptive,’ American theater has become deeply cautious.)
That said, the Lyric Stage production scurries along, culling performances from its 10-member cast that are over busy. It isn’t often you see everyone on stage working a bit too hard at all times; the performers rarely stand still and they toss off shtick nonstop. The result is undoubtedly animated, but also revelatory — it is about cooking up distraction, a sure sign that there is too little theatrical meat at this Barbecue.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.