Robert O'Hara is one of the more audacious playwrights writing in America today. His outrageous "Booty Candy" was a series of sketches that burlesqued African-American attitudes towards gay sex. It was hit and miss (at least in the SpeakEasy production two seasons ago), but introduced O'Hara as a satirist who hits his targets with a marksman's accuracy. His 2015 play, "Barbecue," is equally ambitious -- a cynical commentary on the ways the media exploits the emotional terrain of the recovery movement.
It is likely the time for a spoiler alert because "Barbecue" succeeds because of the surprises it pulls on its audience (one of which keeps the Lyric Stage Company's audiences from getting programs until the intermission); but it is hard to talk of the play without alluding to them. It may be best if you plan on seeing the play to finish the review at a later time.
The play begins with a family, who appears to have wondered out of an episode of "Duck Dynasty," gathering for what first appears to be an outing in a rustic park. Actually they come together for an intervention that siblings James T, Lillie Anne, Marie and Adlean are initiating with their sister Barbara, who has been nicknamed Zippity Boom because of her exploits when high. "She gat two modes. Zippity," James T says. "Boom. Ain't shit in between. . . . When she taste liquor she go Zippity. Boom! Period."
Not that these siblings are models of sobriety -- each has substance abuse issues, which are revealed than dismissed by each of them; and they bicker (as siblings do) in the best (i.e. hilarious) possible way. Then some twenty minutes in the scene changes and the light comes up on the same family configuration, except now the actors are black; and while the race of these characters may have changed, the dysfunction remains. Barbara doesn't take to the intervention willingly, which is why by the end of the act she's bound and gagged as her siblings attempt to persuade her into a recovery facility.
Then in a clever twist that recalls what Caryl Churchill did so effectively in "Cloud 9," things change again, and in doing so put the racial division of the first act in perspective. Let it be said that the switch opens up the play's larger themes, which deal with the way the entertainment industry turns social problems (here drug addiction and family dysfunction) into shameless emotional fodder for Oscar-bait movies. The cartoonish satire of the first half gives way to something darker and more sinister as Barbara's story is co-opted for a celebrated actress/singer's (did anyone else think Beyonce?) self-aggrandizing need for prestige.
As played by Ramona Lisa Alexander the actress/singer is a delicious celebrity send-up, pretentiously intoning in a haughty British accent before slipping into urban dialect. Her foil in this scene is the white Barbara (an effectively naïve Deb Martin), who is far less manipulative than her black counterpart; but, by the end, it is apparent that she's a fast learner. And the two bring the story to a surprisingly happy ending in the most unlikely of places, but one that is perfect for this brilliant indictment of the way American culture trivializes every day suffering for bathetic entertainment.
Director Summer L. Williams navigates the play's mood swings with considerable skills, moving from the broad comedy of the first for the stinging realities of the second. She gets strong work from her cast who bring a crazy energy to the intervention sequence that make up the first act. In the second, Alexander and Martin hold sway with cutting precision and far fewer laughs. Luckily O'Hara makes his points without ever becoming didactic; instead offers a satire that cuts to the bone of a culture obsessed with suffering and celebrity, and the places where the two meet.
"Booty Candy" continues through May 7 at the Lyric Stage Company, 140 Clarendon Street, Boston, MA. For further information, visit the Lyric Stage Company's website.