'Immediate Family': Theater Review

Craig Schwartz
'Immediate Family'
Expert direction and strong performances, but sitcom-style laughs      

Phylicia Rashad directs the West Coast debut of playwright Paul Oakley Stovall's semiautobiographical family comedy about coming out.

Playwright Paul Oakley Stovall drew on his own experience coming out to his loved ones when he wrote his new comedy, Immediate Family, which has been described as an updated Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Only instead of Sidney Poitier, we get Mark Jude Sullivan as Kristian, the Swedish photographer who is secretly betrothed to Jesse (Bryan Terrell Clark), the shining light of the Bryant family, an upscale African-American clan living in Chicago’s Hyde Park. In 1967, the year the Tracey-Hepburn classic was made, the Supreme Court struck down a ban on interracial marriage. At the time, the subject was taboo, but today, not so much. Last week, the Supreme Court heard arguments in support of gay marriage, but in a time when most Americans support equal rights, the relationship between Jesse and Kristian hardly seems controversial.

None of that matters to Evy (Shanesia Davis), the eldest daughter of the Bryant clan. Heir to the well-appointed family manse (John Iacovelli's stylishly practical livingroom and kitchen), where loved ones gather for the wedding of their youngest, Tony (Kamal Angelo Bolden), she likes to think she's the glue that holds the family together. A hyper-neurotic, Evy hilariously harangues Tony out the door in the opening scene in a monologue that delivers more syllables per second than some plays have in a whole act.

While they’re at the airport picking up half-sister Ronnie (Cynda Williams), Jesse arrives at the house and is met by friendly neighborhood lesbian Nina (J. Nicole Brooks). The two are old friends who engage in some slightly overdone horseplay before getting down to the exposition needed to drive the story forward. Jesse’s boyfriend, Kristian, has agreed to photograph the wedding as a favor — only the family has no idea of their relationship. 

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The next 24 hours play out over 90 minutes as Jesse struggles to come out to his family. One of the play’s funniest moments comes when he finally tells Tony, who stares at him, mouth agape, then casually says, “Oh yeah. I knew that.” Turns out everyone has figured it out, and Jesse has created more problems by remaining closeted than he would by coming out, a strong thematic point elegantly conveyed by Stovall.

If only the rest of his play were as compelling. Instead, Immediate Family offers a study in familiar problems sorted in familiar fashion. Evy is intolerant in the usual way – devoutly religious and firm in her belief that homosexuality is a choice. Kristian is torn by the fact that Jesse hasn’t been honest with his family. Each character offers strong conflicts on which to hang a story, but they’re also numbingly obvious.

While Stovall lands some hilarious one-liners (Jesse defends Kristian with: “He’s not like white-people white, he’s European!”) most of the comedy comes from director Phylicia Rashad’s deft handling of her outstanding cast, most of them holdovers from the production’s 2012 premiere at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. Laughter is pretty constant throughout, but it's mainly thanks to timing and nuance rather than dialogue. Stovall’s sitcom-style writing is a fine fit for Rashad, who spent eight years playing Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show.

Last season’s revival of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone illustrated her talent for working with an ensemble, bringing life to August Wilson’s tragic characters with heartfelt veracity. This season’s Immediate Family gives her a chance to tackle comedy, which she does with an effervescent touch.

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As Nina, Brooks gets most of the laughs, with her cartoonish portrayal and wisecracking attitude. Williams, as half-sister Ronnie, arrives from Brussels carrying a bag full of booze. Clearly the outsider (requesting vegan cabbage tofu soup), she is generally accepted by all but Evy, who sees her as a biracial reminder of her father’s infidelity. While Evy is motivated by her love of tradition, her African-American heritage and most of all her family (a portrait of their deceased parents looms throughout), her worldview only allows her to look at Jesse and think “that another black man is of no use to his people.”

What might have been a two-dimensional bigot is given depth and complexity in Davis’ hands. Evy’s intentions aren’t malicious, but as the situation slips further from her grasp, her behavior becomes cruel. When her world turns upside down, she is forced to redefine key principles that hold it together, which means redefining herself. It's a more compelling challenge than that faced by Clark as Jesse, who knows who he is from the outset. New to the show, Clark and Sullivan share little chemistry as a pair of lovers, and seem slightly out of rhythm with the rest of the more seasoned cast. But that will probably smooth itself out as the run continues.

Immediate Family is a crowdpleaser more in the vain of Modern Family than Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Not overly witty or sophisticated, it’s a warm and well-meaning look at the topic of coming out. But while the Supreme Court argues, and politicians wring their hands, most of the country seems decided on the issue of gay rights. Maybe the justices could use a little guidance from trash-talking Nina and the besotted vegan Ronnie to set them straight.

Cast: Kamal Angelo Bolden, J. Nicole Brooks, Bryan Terrell Clark, Shanesia Davis, Mark Jude Sullivan, Cynda Williams
Director: Phylicia Rashad
Playwright: Paul Oakley Stovall
Music and sound design: Joshua Horvath
Set designer: John Iacovelli
Costume designer: ESosa
Lighting designer: Elizabeth Harper
Presented by Center Theatre Group

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