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The twists and innovations of Robert O’Hara’s turbulent, troubling, and occasionally terrifying new comedy “Barbecue,” start the moment you enter the Lyric Stage Company’s theater. Instead of receiving a program, you’re given a flier promising that while programs for the show do indeed exist, you’re not going to get one quite yet. You’re going to have to wait until intermission.
That’s because the play — from the author of “BootyCandy,” another funny and scathing work — is written in such a way that to talk much about it would be to spoil its surprises, which start off seeming to lead in one direction but then double back, shake up expectations and shed light on deeper meanings by tearing the top layers off the story in much the way one might tear off a scab. The result is similar: Underneath, there’s rawness, strong sensations and maybe a little blood.
What’s safe to say is that the play concerns a family — the O’Mallerys — who gather in a city park under the guise of having a barbecue. The O’Mallery siblings number five in all; there used to be seven of them, but a brother and sister have perished in years past thanks to drug and alcohol abuse, and another O’Mallery, Barbara, seems to be well on her way to joining them. Barbara’s surviving siblings have laid a trap for her: The barbecue is merely the lure for an intervention which, if all goes according to plan, will result in a long, therapeutic stay for Barbara in a rehab facility located in Alaska — a place offering not just psychotherapy but also horses, rope courses and massages.
But Barbara isn’t alone in her struggles with addiction. Alcohol, marijuana, crack cocaine, gambling and control issues pose existential risks to all of Barbara’s well-meaning (but imperfect) family members. The cracks in the O’Mallerys’ collective armor soon start to show as the individuals in the family come to understand how their unified effort to liberate Barbara from her demons might end up shining a light on their own vices and peccadilloes. If their presumable virtue cannot stand up to close scrutiny, then what about Barbara’s evident lapses? For that matter, what about their entire shared family experience, including the meanings of the individual lives they’ve lived?
That’s a storyline with endless rich possibilities to explore, but it’s not the playwright’s focus. O’Hara has bigger fish to spear, starting with the highly subjective nature of truth. With so many substances and compulsions in the mix, you might start to wonder how reliable these characters could be in defending their own actions, much less holding Barbara accountable for hers. As the O’Mallerys proceed to confront one another with bold challenges, tough love and hard truths, O’Hara puts their claims and complaints beneath a series of lenses and filters that so radically challenge our understanding of what’s going on that we lose track of what is fact and what is fiction.
In a broader sense, O’Hara is criticizing the human tendency to filter the narratives of individuals through a lens of expectations defined by broadly defined demographics. How does a person’s story engage our sympathies, or spark our skepticism, depending on factors like gender, race, class, education, religion, or any other such markers? Turning that same lens on ourselves, to what extent do we edit and recast our own stories depending on our need to justify ourselves, or shift responsibility, or persuade someone else?
O’Hara starts with the proposition that there are certain forms of malarkey that we’re eager to buy into. The implied corollary to that is there might be certain species of fact that we do our best to discount and ignore. The result is that we depend on stories — told to us by others, or told to ourselves — to make sense of the world and formulate a sense of objective reality. O’Hara gleefully shatters that reality and throws everything into doubt. It’s a dangerous move, because so much can go wrong, but it’s also liberating, giving this play the ability to fold in on itself and assume striking new shapes.
We depend on stories — told to us by others, or told to ourselves — to make sense of the world and formulate a sense of objective reality. O’Hara gleefully shatters that reality and throws everything into doubt. It’s a dangerous move, because so much can go wrong, but it’s also liberating, giving this play the ability to fold in on itself and assume striking new shapes. "Barbecue" both benefits and suffers from this liberty.
Like a cubist painter, O’Hara deconstructs reality, aligning narrative facets in unusual and revealing ways, but by the time he’s done wrenching us from one conception of the story to the next — which he does several times over — exhaustion has set in. O’Hara seems to be counting on this; he gives us an ending that’s so improbable and surreal that it only works because, in our shell-shocked state, we’ve long since surrendered.
Director Summer L. Williams keeps a firm grasp on O’Hara’s slippery script, so that we do manage to hang in there while our minds are being bent. David Wilson’s sound design helps anchor the play in a consistent environment; we get the acoustical cues we need (dogs, lawn mowers) to help us keep track of the fact that the story is taking place in the open air of a city park. In one nicely designed scene in which night falls while two characters engage in an intense back and forth, Jen Rock’s lighting unobtrusively and effectively transitions from afternoon to nighttime, and the change pulls the play’s mood into just the right place, at just the right pace.
The cast has the hardest job, which includes different takes on the same characters as well as some clever doubling (including a non-family member who swans into the play with a mixture of overall affectation and specifically-deployed comic deflections that can’t be described here, but that make perfect sense for her character). There’s a heartland America vibe about the O’Mallerys that’s designed to provoke specific assumptions and associations; when costumer Tyler Kinney outfits a couple of characters with bright red ball caps, which they wear backward, you can’t help straining to see whether the legend “Make America Great Again” will turn out to be written across them somewhere. (It’s not.)
Similarly, when it comes to another group of people the O’Mallerys intersect with in a surprising way, there’s a different, but equally specific sensibility that’s engendered. The members of the cast walk a delicate line that verges on stereotypes, but — and this is important — they veer away from those stereotypes when it matters.
It’s long been a social mandate to “keep an open mind.” But are you prepared to have your supposedly open mind blown off its hinges? “Barbecue” has a sting in its tail, but the play also leaves you feeling like you’ve gotten a pie to the face. Maybe the real twist about “truth” is that, whatever it might be, it’s ultimately a joke — and the joke is on you.
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