Phillip James Brannon and Jessica Frances Dukes in Robert O’Hara’s “Bootycandy.” | JOAN MARCUS
The boisterous and raunchy “Bootycandy,” Robert O’Hara’s latest work now at Playwrights Horizons, registers less as a fully formed play and more like a live sketch comedy show — think “In Living Color” (minus the Fly Girls) as presented by HBO.
Even O’Hara admitted the satiric portrait of sexual awakening and growing up black and gay in America is based on a bunch of earlier one-acts, inspired by people in his own life, which he later expanded into a full-length piece. The result is vibrant and highly entertaining, albeit oddly disjointed.
Absent a solid through-line, the comedic drama’s connective tissue is a character named Sutter (played by the marvelous Phillip James Brannon), a lanky, effeminate youth obsessed with Michael Jackson and Jackie Collins who appears in several scenes.
A patchy portrait of one boy’s struggle growing up black and gay
“Bootycandy” is a pastiche of sketches that careen among Sutter’s boyhood home, church, seedy bars and motels, a bus stop, and a nursing home, among others.
Although you won’t find “bootycandy” in Webster’s Dictionary — or the Urban Dictionary, for that matter — the first sketch, introducing a young Sutter circa 1970, clad in patchwork bellbottoms, defines it for us. When the boy asks his mommy (Jessica Frances Dukes) about his “dick,” she says he should call it his “bootycandy.”
Said “bootycandy” proves to be a source of both pleasure and pain later in the proceedings.
The next skit spotlights Reverend Benson (Lance Coadie Williams) preaching a sermon, gleefully showing his congregation the glory of staying true to one’s nature by revealing a divine secret under his robe. There’s also a sketch where a sloshed, self-proclaimed “straight” dude (Jesse Pennington) hits on Sutter in a series of dive bars.
COVER ILLUSTRATION BY MICHAEL SHIREY
Another sketch finds four gossips (Benja Kay Thomas and Dukes each hilariously playing dual roles) blabbing on the phone, skewering one woman who dared name her daughter Genitalia. Another details the wacky absurdities that ensue when a glowering, burnt-out lesbian couple (Thomas and Dukes) stage a “non-commitment” ceremony.
Not that the endeavor is all fun and punch lines. The gutsy O’Hara, who also directs, is bent on exposing grim truths about race, homophobia, loneliness, sexual longing, and retribution. A few scenes take sharply dark detours; dialogue is spiked with profanity and frank descriptions of shockingly twisted sexual situations. Plus there’s brief frontal nudity. “Bootycandy” is recommended for ages 17 and older — and with good reason.
Although the skilled ensemble tackles multiple roles with gusto, unfortunately the ever-shifting tone is as out of whack as the narrative flow. What’s more, occasionally O’Hara breaks the fourth wall — and dramatic momentum — with touches of absurdist meta-theatrics (house lights are even turned up), which many will find more baffling than amusing.
In a sketch featuring a group of African-American playwrights reluctantly taking part in a symposium about their craft, the authors assert that their goal is to make the audience choke on the dramatic material — it should not go down easy and the pain should linger. With the brash and provocative “Bootycandy,” surely O’Hara achieves that goal, for better or worse.
BOOTYCANDY | Playwrights Horizons, Mainstage Theater, 416 W. 42nd St. | Through Oct. 12: Tue.-Wed. at 7 p.m.; Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. at 2:30 p.m.; Sun. at 7:30 p.m. | $75-$95 at ticketcentral.com | Two hrs., with intermission