Criticism is subjective. One person’s passion is another’s poison; opinions are countless as grains of sand. But I feel confident in saying that anyone who sees Chicken & Biscuits at Circle in the Square will have exactly the same response. You will leave wanting to eat chicken. You will leave needing to eat biscuits.
The boisterous family in Douglas Lyons’s broad, churchy comedy talks about that tasty combination repeatedly, as if it’s the lord’s true communion. Gathered to celebrate the homegoing of late grandpaterfamilias Bernard, his bickering daughters and adult grandchildren all agree that his favorite meal will await him in heaven. The much-missed Reverend Bernard couldn’t really prepare it well himself, a fact that hints at other flaws. Still, his love for it was contagious, and the bereaved’s own troubles all evaporate when they gather around the table to tuck in. Appetite is ultimately the play’s theme, worked and reworked into scenes between family members who find new ways to disappoint and then — as the farce eases toward sentiment — satisfy one another.
First daughter Baneatta (Cleo King) wears her splendid black hat like a crown, but she moves as if her feet hurt. A woman of a certain age, she is excruciatingly conscious of her dignity as the wife to Reginald (Norm Lewis), the new pastor succeeding her father at St. Luke’s. Even before Bernard’s funeral can begin, Baneatta’s lofty sense of position makes her a little cruel: she berates her sister Beverly (Ebony Marshall-Oliver) for her outrageous mourning clothes — “the puppies are out,” Beverly says proudly — and despite her love for son Kenny (Devere Rogers), she purports to forget the name of his longtime lover, the white and Jewish Logan (Michael Urie). Her daughter, Simone (Alana Raquel Bowers), takes her homophobic cues from her mother, and though Simone has her own reasons for being suspicious of a white partner in the family’s midst, she keeps them secret.
Already Lyons has introduced enough complication and confrontation for a full evening’s entertainment, but he comes from the more-is-more school. Baneatta is dodging someone’s phone calls, and a chaotic funeral service goes heels-over-hat when a surprise guest walks fearfully up to the lectern. Lyons is writing a comedy of types: If this were commedia dell’arte, Beverly’s 15-year-old daughter La’Trice (Aigner Mizzelle) would be our Harlequin, dressed in vivid colors, thinking only of her hunger, plotting for her own pleasures yet somehow also nudging her elders’ toward resolving their conflicts.
Going to Chicken & Biscuits does feel like being fed by loving but overweening relatives. There’s a bit too much of it — the published running time notwithstanding, this show lasts more than two hours with no intermission — but it’s a meal full of comfort dishes, difficulties resolved, and love requited. It turns the nearly in-the-round space at Circle in the Square into a church with stained-glass windows behind the audience and the great Norm Lewis in the pulpit. At the show’s climax, Reginald delivers a simultaneously stirring and silly eulogy in Redemption Cadence. “We fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen!” cries Reginald, hitting the final n’s in those words as if he’s bouncing them off a wall. Broadway doesn’t usually (ever?) stage Black church services with such relish, and the audience reacts in direct proportion to their familiarity with the ceremony: There were those who could recite scripture alongside him, and their responses made the theater sing.
Lyons and director Zhailon Levingston are best when things are at their tartest. Every actor has a different comic strategy: King seems to be moving more slowly than everyone else, which naturally turns all eyes toward her; Urie gasps and wriggles like a snapper on a line; Marshall-Oliver (abetted by brilliant costume designer Dede Ayite and hair designer Nikiya Mathis) is the production’s gorgeous show pony, nervy and commanding; Lewis plays straight man to the others until he gets to the pulpit, when he starts to steal scenes, too.
The melodramatic machinations rely on music, just as the old melodramas did. The music here is sometimes actually music, as when basso Lewis shakes the rafters with a hymn, but other times it’s the music of the bent phrase, the swing of language. Levingston conducts the play as much as he directs it: The syncopated insult rhythms and singsong sermonizing trigger emotional responses. Lyons, who was an actor before he turned playwright, gives actors Kenny and Logan the most barbed lines and some of his own backstory. When anticipating Baneatta’s inevitable snubbing, Logan complains, “Babe, every time she sees me, she pretends I’m not in the room … it’s like when Casey Nicholaw cut me from that Mormon callback.” Lyons was, in fact, in The Book of Mormon, and you realize that he knows two churches — Christ’s and Broadway’s.
Chicken & Biscuits will not serve every hunger. In the comic scenes, when the sisters are eyeing each other’s outfits or Logan is bobbling his Bible, the play stands on solid ground, but in the long-seeming resolution scenes, as the drama comes to rely on plot developments, the journey toward uplift turns convenient and then mechanical. Yet just because the script’s jokey sections are its fiercest doesn’t mean Lyons isn’t taking some things seriously. Underneath all the mayhem and rollicking, there’s acknowledgment of real pain. Kenny, for instance, has been badly treated and has no choice but to forgive. There are serious intergenerational and intrafaith costs here: In Lyons’s world, the women’s ricocheting judgments cause real damage and too many of the story’s men seem ready to abandon their children. Where is La’Trice’s father? Where is Simone’s fiancé? Lawrence E. Moten III’s set, which uses rolling pews to create many locations, hints that all answers are here, in a church that is also the theater. At the very last moment, those pews become benches around a table, and the cast begins to eat. Both the church and the theater have made room for the whole family, and when they do, other kinds of love roll in.
Chicken & Biscuits is at the Circle in the Square Theatre.