In Robert O’Hara’s “Barbecue,” the O’Mallery family knows that parties start and end with Zippity Boom. That’s their name for Barbara, who can be the life of the party, but is addicted to crack and alcohol and has a volatile temper.
The family has set up a barbecue in a public park and is waiting for Barbara to arrive. James T (James Yeargain) arrived early to claim a picnic shelter, and Yeargain is animated and hilarious on stage by himself as he speaks on his phone via a wireless earpiece while waiting for the others. Matriarch Lillie Anne (Chrissy Jacobs) arrives with food and balloons. Sisters Adlean (Natasha Brown) and Marie (Rebecca Leigh) join the group, and Marie gets started on a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. Lillie explains her plan to have a family intervention to give Barbara (Natalie Boyd) an ultimatum about going to rehab. Everyone is anxious about how Barbara will react.
Actually, there are two O’Mallery families. After a scene change, the lights come up on a parallel black O’Mallery family. A tipsy Marie (Tenaj Jackson) espouses crackpot theories, including that canned foods cause cancer, and that this is somehow caused by people from the Middle East.
In the Radical Buffoons’ production, which runs through April 6 at the intimate space at Fortress of Lushington, the set includes a sign that says, “Pitch In: Put trash in its place.” It’s a clever spin on some of the squabbling in the drama. Many of the O’Mallerys cope with substance abuse and there are gratuitous stories of inebriated exploits and trashy behavior. There are many funny rants and cutting remarks. Elements of the story and costumes seem to exaggerate social stereotypes.
Despite the parallel characters and humor about people struggling with addiction, the talented cast brings everyone to life. O’Hara is a gifted playwright and his purpose isn’t to mine cheap humor while digging into perceptions of race, class and social dysfunction. It’s darkly funny, especially as Jackson, Naomi Daugherty as Adlean and Wayland Cooper as James T try to convince Barbara (Mahalia Abeo Tibbs) that her going to rehab is in everyone’s best interest. Daugherty is brilliant as Adlean taking a richly smug and condescending tone to try to shame Barbara, while Marie celebrates wild times in an effort to flatter Barbara into admitting she needs help. Everyone, especially the audience, waits for Zippty Boom to explode.
Jon Greene and Torey Hayward’s direction is solid in a drama which almost entirely is comprised of people talking while standing in a park. At times the dialogue could be crisper as family members squabble in snippets where they appear to interrupt and get testy with one another.
It’s very hard to predict what plot twists O’Hara has in store, and impossible to describe without spoiling the story’s drama. Both Boyd and Tibbs are excellent as the respective Barbaras. Tibbs offers a range of charm and viciousness, and seems effortlessly comfortable in her role. Boyd shines in moments of vulnerability and determination.
As funny as the first act can be, few of the characters are extremely likable, and that seems to be O’Hara’s intent. They’re all a little bit dangerous. As they lash out and point out each other’s past shortcomings throughout the drama, O’Hara offers a cascading series of new ways to see them and their situation. It’s also a sophisticated treatment of how truth and pretense are perceived in complicated lives. “Barbecue” has plenty of heat, but it also delivers a good slow burn.