It’s a good thing that the company of “Chicken & Biscuits” is so charming, and that the play is so clearly intended to provide a gently comic good time, because the new comedy by Douglas Lyons — now at Circle in the Square — is little more than a conventional sitcom and a dated one at that. In its effort to provide light entertainment, Lyons’ play trades in tried-and-true tropes of the genre. Some still land. Some are overly labored, and one borders on offensive in 2021.
A family is gathering for the funeral of its patriarch. Old resentments are uncovered. Secrets are revealed. There’s a “good” sister and a “bad” sister, and there’s even a gay couple. All ends happily…kind of. From a dramaturgy standpoint, the plotting is full of inconsistencies, and plot points are left hanging. There is a long section at the funeral when people get up and talk, and the speeches are neither funny nor enlightening. In short, Lyons’ play turns out to be neither fish nor fowl: neither rollicking comedy nor polemic meditation.
What’s working is the conflict between sisters Baneatta (Cleo King) and Beverly (Ebony Marshall-Oliver). It’s their father who has died, and Baneatta’s husband Reginald (Norm Lewis) is about to take over the father’s church as pastor and worries that he’ll be able to fill the shoes. Reginald and Baneatta’s relationship is loving and supportive. Beverly, on the other hand is, to use an archaic word, a libertine, wearing a push up bra and stilettos to church, as it’s a good place to meet a man.
The collision of the sacred and the sexualized works because these are always played as opposites in our culture. The jokes, therefore, are an easy setup, but in true sitcom fashion, the bond of family trumps all. There is also a disaffected teenager, La’trice (Aigner Mizzelle), Beverly’s daughter. Lyons, however, has given Gen-Z spin to the stereotype. Beneath her solipsistic world of Tik-Tok and consumption, La’trice has a heart, intelligence, and sensitivity that reveal depth and give the familiar type an original and timely spin.
The portrayal of the gay couple is, at best, unfortunate, and at the worst trades in the kind of shallow minstrelsy that has plagued popular entertainment for more than 50 years in representing LGBTQ people. Kenny (Devere Rogers), Baneatta’s son, is bringing his white, Jewish boyfriend Logan Leibowitz (Michael Urie) to the funeral unannounced. The conflict between the couple is that Kenny isn’t out to his family and Baneatta barely acknowledges Logan.
Neurosis and whining ensues. Logan, as a white man, is presented as clueless about Christianity, the Bible, or the Black Church. Kenny did not prepare him for what to expect, and high-strung strung Logan wants to leave. He thinks he should have just sent a Bundt cake — a gag directly ripped off from “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” In making the characters ridiculous, ashamed of their sexuality, and inherently powerless in the context of family, playwright Lyons goes for easy laughs and panders to the presumed biases of a “mainstream” audience — but he misreads the times. It’s frustrating for an LGBTQ audience in 2021 to watch homophobia played for facile laughs, even if everyone comes around at the end — or appears to; Lyons leaves Kenny and Logan’s relationship unresolved in the general happiness at the end.
As noted, the cast delivers what pleasures are to be had. Ebony Marshall-Oliver, in her Broadway debut, is hilarious as Beverly. She has great comic timing and earns genuine laughs from even the most hackneyed situation. Similarly, Aigner Mizzelle, in another debut, makes La’trice sympathetic, annoying, and hysterical, with a focus and a presence that light up every moment she’s on stage. She’s a star to watch out for. While it’s always a pleasure to see theater veterans Norm Lewis, as Reginald, and Michael Urie, as Logan, their talents are hampered by the writing. Urie, who knows his way around a comic bit better than almost any actor working today, seems particularly restrained, though he manages to sneak in some terrific moments.
Director Zhailon Levingston does what he can with the play, but the result is more a series of set pieces rather than a coherent whole. The three-quarters thrust at Circle in the Square doesn’t do him any favors, as it’s often hard to know where to look. Costumes by Dede Ayite and wigs by Nikiya Mathis are splendid, however, giving the whole production its upbeat look.
“Chicken & Biscuits” has no pretentions of being anything serious. So, perhaps in this time of cultural chaos, it’s comforting to just sit back and enjoy the cartoonish shenanigans. Perhaps. While the play touches on racial issues about as lightly as possible, “Chicken & Biscuits” doesn’t pretend to be in a league with plays like the current and wonderful “Thoughts of a Colored Man,” or the recent “Pass Over.”
Broadway becoming more diverse and representing the population as a whole is both important and exciting. Inevitably there will be some clunkers because, well, that’s showbiz. Yet, one would hope as we continue to move forward that when it comes to comedy, producers will be able to serve up something more contemporary and satisfying than stale biscuits.
CHICKEN & BISCUITS | Circle in the Square | 235 West 50th Street | Tues, Thurs 7 p.m.; Fri, Sat 8 p.m.; Weds, Sat 2 p.m.; Sun 3 p.m. | $69.50-$225.50 Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200