Douglas Lyons’s “Chicken & Biscuits,” at Broadway’s Circle in the Square theater, is a savory comedy served with a hefty side order of sentiment. It’s a mostly successful combo plate, even if the play’s buoyant humor tends to recede in the later scenes, as the tensions among three generations of an African American family are smoothly settled.
The setup is a familiar but reliably fertile formula: the gathering of a family with various bones to pick over. The occasion here is in fact the funeral of the family patriarch, Bernard, or B as the family all called him, the beloved pastor of a popular church in New Haven, Conn. Presiding over the services is his son-in-law, Reginald (Broadway veteran Norm Lewis), who has inherited the pastor’s robes and responsibilities.
But a more forceful layer-down of the law in the family is his wife, Bernard’s eldest daughter Baneatta, whom Cleo King imbues with the kind of rectitude — or self-righteousness, some would say — that seems to surround her with an aura of authority. Baneatta is a woman ever on the scent for something or someone to disapprove of. “Lord, help me keep my eyeballs rolled forward,” she says in a private moment of prayer.
Naturally, family members arriving for the funeral offer plenty of fodder for those ready-to-roll eyes. Chief target of Baneatta’s baleful glares is her younger sister Beverly (Ebony Marshall-Oliver), who has chosen to garb herself in a gold-spattered dress with a short skirt and an equally glittery jacket that nevertheless does little to hide her “puppies,” as she frequently refers to her breasts. There’s also the matter of her vividly hued blue hair. Her daughter, La’Trice (Aigner Mizzelle), clearly takes her sartorial cues from mom: She’s got neon braids in her hair and neon makeup on her face.
Distracting Baneatta from her frozen annoyance at her sister’s wayward ways is the presence of Michael Urie’s Logan Leibowitz, the Jewish boyfriend (unacknowledged but fooling no one) of her son, Kenny (Devere Rogers). Baneatta expresses her longstanding dismay at their union by willfully and repeatedly getting Logan’s name wrong — the lone joke in a play stuffed with bitingly tart ones that Lyons rather overworks.
Just about the only family member entirely welcomed by Baneatta is her daughter, Simone (Alana Raquel Bowers), who nevertheless arrives in a cloud of gloom, having just had her fiancé leave her — for a white woman. Simone’s relationship with her brother, Kenny, of whose sexuality and choice of (white) mate she doesn’t quite approve either, is not exactly cozy.
Having brewed up a stew of potential family strife, Lyons proceeds to stir the pot with impressive skill, resulting in a church service that gradually devolves into a raucously funny party, as the tensions and antagonisms flare and eventually burst into full flame. Lyons, who has also appeared on Broadway as an actor, certainly gives his cast plenty to chew on, and under the mostly brisk direction of Zhailon Levingston, chew they do. But I should add that the scenery, by Lawrence E. Moten III, which effectively turns the Circle in the Square auditorium into a sizable church, remains undigested: The performances are often blazingly funny, and moments of physical humor abound, but the actors always remain rooted firmly in character.
Having the biggest ball up there is probably Marshall-Oliver as the heedless troublemaker Beverly, who clearly loves to get under her sister’s skin. But as deliciously tangy as her performance is, Marshall-Oliver also exudes a life-giving warmth; Beverly may be reckless and feckless, but her heart is full. As La’Trice, who has clearly inherited not just her mother’s dress sense but also her impish personality, Mizzelle is also a vivid presence, not least when she’s slyly blackmailing Logan to “puff, puff, pass” when she finds him escaping from the service to calm his nerves by vaping weed.
Urie’s Logan, in the classic fish-out-of-water role (he’s the only white character), is also a continual supplier of amusement, as Logan grows increasingly rattled — and nobody does funny-rattled better than Urie — by finding himself unwittingly cast in a “reverse ‘Get Out,’” as he hilariously puts it, adding, “And we all know how that ended.”
The other characters provide less obvious opportunities to scavenge for laughs, but they are all nicely rendered. Lewis has perhaps the most thankless role, but with his beautiful dark-rum baritone, he is perfectly cast as a pastor, his gorgeous voice gently soaring when he begins (at last) the eulogy for his father-in-law. As Kenny, one of the less overtly comic characters, Rogers is nevertheless a sympathetic presence. And while she is mostly around to party-poop, Bowers’s Simone has one of the flat-out best moments in the play, when, in discussing her fiancé’s betrayal, she avers that when she sees white, she sees red — while glaring coolly out at the audience (we are unofficially cast as attendees at the funeral), which is, this being Broadway, not lacking in white faces.
It is roughly when the formal service begins that the play begins to sag a little, as Lyons pivots toward heartstring-tugging moments of reconciliation. (Having each family member speak a few words from the pulpit — or rather more than a few — doesn’t help.) The show recalls the broad humor and unabashed sentimentality found in the work of filmmaker and playwright Tyler Perry. But some of the more emotional engagements between the characters feel more fully realized than others — Kenny’s confrontation with Simone over her tacit disapproval of his sexuality feels a little shopworn by this point — and others are simply overwritten.
Nevertheless, Lyons successfully navigates the play’s big reveal, which obviously won’t be revealed here. I can say that it refers to a long-buried family secret, and that Natasha Yvette Williams, who arrives late to this particular party, nevertheless brings a powerful wounded gravity to her comparatively minor role.
“Chicken & Biscuits” is more successful as a roaring comedy than as a searching exploration of family dynamics. But given the choice, I’ll take the gags. The play provides audiences with the blessed release of almost continual laughter, which is something we probably all need.
“Chicken & Biscuits” opened at the Circle in the Square Theatre on Oct. 10, 2021.
Review photo: Emilio Madrid.
Creative: Written by Douglas Lyons; Original Music by Michael O. Mitchell; Directed by Zhailon Levingston; Scenic Design by Lawrence E. Moten III; Costume Design by Dede Ayite; Lighting Design by Adam Honoré; Sound Design by Twi McCallum.
Producers: Pamela Ross, Hunter Arnold, E. Clayton Cornelious, Leah Michalos, Kayla Greenspan, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Nick Jonas, Mapleseed Productions, Curt Cronin, John Joseph, John Paterakis and Invisible Wall Productions/Blaine Hopkins.
Cast: Cleo King, Norm Lewis, Michael Urie, Alana Raquel Bowers, Ebony Marshall-Oliver, Aigner Mizzelle, Devere Rogers and NaTasha Yvette Williams.