Two Hits and One Big Miss

Heather Alicia Simms, Benja Kay Thomas, Kim Wayans, and Marc Damon Johnson in BARBECUE, written by Robert O’Hara’s “Barbecue,” directed by Kent Gash at the Public Theater through November 1. | JOAN MARCUS

Heather Alicia Simms, Benja Kay Thomas, Kim Wayans, and Marc Damon Johnson in Robert O’Hara’s “Barbecue,” directed by Kent Gash, at the Public Theater through November 1 only. | JOAN MARCUS

When Robert O‘Hara’s “Bootycandy” opened at Playwrights Horizons last year, it seemed like a bunch of sketches in search of a play. Yes, there was a theme in the challenges of being black and gay in a largely unwelcoming culture, but despite some fine writing and incisive observational comedy it was an immature, largely one-note work that wasn’t a coherent play.

Let’s call that piece an anomaly and move forward because O’Hara’s newest play “Barbecue,” which just opened at the Public, is about as tightly constructed and substantive as it could be. While maintaining O’Hara’s skewed and biting sense of humor, this hilarious social satire of race and class cuts a wide swath through many levels of the culture and takes aim at the high and low.

The play opens with a white family planning an intervention on their sister Barbara, whose wild drinking escapades have earned her the nickname “Zippity-Boom.” The family is what can only be described as trailer trash, and at one point there’s a blackout and the white family is replaced by a black family playing the same roles, but with a distinctly different cadence and attitude in their speech and attitudes. Clearly these are the same people, but what’s up with that?

A great new play at the Public, a wonderful revival, and one bad trip

Well, I’m not going to tell you because to do so would be to unfairly reveal the first of the delightful and surprising twists and turns that keep the plot rocketing along, and the audience gasping from laughter.

The flawless direction by Kent Gash doesn’t miss a comic opportunity and yet somehow allows the characters to be both types and real people. It’s one of the reasons the comedy works. Paul Tazewell’s costumes are spot-on — the genius in the details becomes even more pronounced as the plot points are revealed. The cast is uniformly great, but the performances by Tamberla Perry, Samantha Soule, Kim Wayans, Heather Alicia Simms, and Benja Kay Thomas deserve special mention.

“Barbecue” demonstrates without a doubt that the well-made theatrical comedy is alive and well. Going into it I wouldn’t have said this, but I can’t wait to see what O’Hara does next.

Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones in "The Gin Game." | JOAN MARCUS

Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones in “The Gin Game.” | JOAN MARCUS

“The Gin Game,” is not really much of a play, but in the star-driven and stellar revival now at the Golden, you wouldn’t know it. With James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson in a two-hander about forgotten people in a down-at-the-heels retirement home, this heart-filled and sensitive production is completely charming.

Weller Martin and Fonsia Dorsey have been parked, for want of a better word, in this home. As the play opens, Weller is alone on the porch rifling through a deck of cards. When Fonsia appears, as if she’s wandered out on the porch by accident, Weller sees the opportunity for a game of gin. Fonsia agrees, and the couple begins a series of games over several weeks. Fonsia, however, turns out to be quite the card player, which frustrates Weller and provokes several arguments. His outbursts become quite terrifying to Fonsia. That’s pretty much the play as written.

As presented here, however, Jones gives one of his most subtle performances in years. He is a man who has been disappointed in business, made some terrible choices, and spends his days steeped in anger and regret. His attempts to be civil are often undone by his upset at losing at cards, but, of course, there is more going on. Jones, still at the height of his craft, gives a sympathetic performance as a man whose power and control are slowly ebbing away while he is helpless to stop it.

Tyson as Fonsia is every bit Jones’ match. She is clutching her past as tightly as she clutches her white purse –– as if it contains her entire identity. Slight as she is, Fosnia comes across as strong and proud but, like Weller, losing all the things that defined her.

Jones and Tyson play marvelously together. Amid the pathos — and borderline bathos — there is plenty of comedy as the relationship develops, and the richness of the moments combined with the economy of their choices fills even the smallest moments with believable life. This is fortunate indeed because the second act doesn’t offer very much in terms of plot or even resolution. Yet the chance to watch such fine work from two accomplished veterans should make you more than happy with the hand you’re dealt.

“Trip of Love” is the new Off-Broadway revue of 28 hit songs from the 1960s performed by a super-amped-up cast of 23, and they kill every last song. Kill, in this case, is as in class A felony, scrawl “Helter Skelter” on the wall. This misbegotten show has been created, directed, and choreographed by one James Walski, and it is intended to tell the story — a la “Alice in Wonderland” — of a girl who takes a psychedelic drug and has all kinds of crazy experience. Yet Walski and his cast seem to have no idea what they’re singing about. How did “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” become a story about two young people falling in love? And how does “If You Go Away” become about two soldiers about to be killed in Vietnam while a third, a war protestor, is leaving for Canada? And how does that segue into a bouncy rendition of “Downtown?” This show is tone deaf to the period and the music. One song is more misconceived than the next, and the whole undertaking has the feeling of a stilted variety show.

One can’t fault the energetic cast for singing and dancing their hearts out. They’re all fairly generic, with the exception of Kelly Felthous in the Alice role. Her shrill singing reminds one of an abused housecat, and her rendition of “Where the Boys Are” is truly terrifying.

Someone, somewhere must have thought this trip was worth taking, They were wrong.

BARBECUE | The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., btwn. E. Fourth St. & Astor Pl. | Through Nov. 1: Tue.-Fri. at 7:30 p.m.; Sat. at 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $50 at | Two hrs., with intermission

THE GIN GAME | Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St. | Through Jan. 10: Tue., Thu. at 7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $57-$141 at or 212-239-6200 | Two hrs., 15 mins., with intermission

TRIP OF LOVE | Stage 42, 422 W. 42nd St. | Tue. at 7 p.m.; Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $69-$99 at or 212-239-6200 | Two hrs., with intermission