Los Angeles Theater Review: IMMEDIATE FAMILY (Mark Taper Forum)

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by Tony Frankel on May 4, 2015

in Theater-Los Angeles

COMMERCIAL WITHOUT COMMERCIALS

Imagine if the ‘70s sitcom Good Times did not hit TV until 2007. Now imagine a 3-episode arc about the coming out of a black man who brings his white boyfriend home for his brother’s wedding. Toss into the racial and gay humor some dysfunctional family drama revelations and old-fashioned sight gags, and you get a sense of Paul Oakley Stovall’s Immediate Family.

L-R: Cynda Williams (behind), Bryan Terrell Clark, Shanésia Davis, Mark Jude Sullivan (behind), J. Nicole Brooks and Kamal Angelo Bolden in Paul Oakley Stovall’s “Immediate Family,” directed by Phylicia Rashad

Evy, a teacher with strong religious beliefs and fierce racial pride, holds down the Bryant family fort in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. The black family, fragmented since the death of their parents, is coming together for the wedding of Evy’s younger brother Tony (we never meet his fiancée). Arriving from Europe is their half-sister, Ronnie, the product of an affair by their father and a white woman.

Gay brother Jesse arrives from Minneapolis with news which he departs to all but the homophobic Evy: Kristian, his Swedish partner of three years, has proposed. By the time Kristian (who has agreed to photograph the wedding pro bono) makes his appearance fairly late in the 90-minute intermissionless show, feelings are running high, leading to a spiral of recriminations, revelations about past hurts, and ultimately some acceptance if not complete reconciliation (a mellow and silent moment unpersuasively concludes the play).

Cynda Williams, Bryan Terrell Clark and Kamal Angelo Bolden in Paul Oakley Stovall’s “Immediate Family,” directed by Phylicia Rashad.

The true comedy here comes courtesy of Nina, Jesse’s feisty, sassy, bumptious, forthright, and booby-waving lesbian friend who lives next door to Evy. This character is an enormous crowd-pleaser, but she remains peripheral to the main storyline, which is Evy’s intolerant attitude on race and homosexuality conflicting with Jesse’s coming out.

Frankly, the issues addressed feel practically outdated since Stovall’s play first premiered eight years ago under the name As Much As You Can, which was produced at L.A.’s Celebration Theatre with Tonya Pinkins. Lacking the bite of Hellman or Miller families, the play’s sit-com schematic (which shapes all the dysfunctional family dramas flooding American stages in recent decades) isn’t altogether unlikeable. Didacticism, contrivances, and implausibility aside, Stovall certainly writes funny lines—dialogue tailored to black folk—interspersing them with spurts of high emotional intensity (and who doesn’t love a good cat fight?). An incomprehensibly complicated card game is a particular hoot as well, but it all lacks timelessness. It also took quite a while to sort out exactly how the characters relate.

Kamal Angelo Bolden, Cynda Williams (behind), Bryan Terrell Clark, Shanésia Davis, J. Nicole Brooks and Mark Jude Sullivan in Paul Oakley Stovall’s “Immediate Family,” directed by Phylicia Rashad.

The most intriguing aspect of the plot went largely unexplored: Tony, who tends to take his brother’s homosexuality in stride, freaks out when he discovers that Kristian is white. It’s refreshing to see black racism discussed on stage but Stovall could go much further.

This safe and commercial affair could also add dimension to Evy, who seems a bit too villainous for no reason: It may be telling as to her stubbornness, but it feels ridiculous that Evy refuses to recognize Bayard Rustin, architect of both the March on Washington and the African-American Civil Rights Movement, as one of the most influential black Americans because of his “immorality.”

Cynda Williams, Bryan Terrell Clark and Shanésia Davis in Paul Oakley Stovall’s “Immediate Family,” directed by Phylicia Rashad.

The six-member cast (four of whom return from the Goodman Theatre production in Chicago) does well by Stovall’s script, aided in a big, big way by the tight direction of Phylicia Rashad, who played Claire Huxtable in the enormously popular The Cosby Show, and knows a thing or two about the realistic sitcom aesthetic (she also brought along the same set designer from Chicago, John Iacovelli, whose detailed house interior is a marvel).

Shanésia Davis is exceptional as the tense and condemnatory Evy. As Tony and Nina, Kamal Angelo Bolden and J. Nicole Brooks adeptly dispense most of the play’s ethnic humor. Cynda Williams does what she can with the role of the half-sister, but she remains a peripheral character—which is surprising because she drinks enough to become something out of Albee. Mark Jude Sullivan is immensely agreeable as Kristian. While he has a strong presence, Bryan Terrell Clark could have made his Jesse more emotionally complex.

Bryan Terrell Clark, Shanésia Davis, Mark Jude Sullivan (behind), J. Nicole Brooks, Cynda Williams and Kamal Angelo Bolden in Paul Oakley Stovall’s “Immediate Family,” directed by Phylicia Rashad.

I suspect some patrons will eat this up without any regards to dramaturgy. I prefer plays that are brave enough to end up as messy as the subject matter, which Immediate Family, subtitled “A New American Play,” does not. At the end of Harvey Fierstein’s seminal Torch Song Trilogy (1981), the lead gay character, Arnold, ends up with a dead lover, a wonky relationship, a mother who abandons him, and a world of intolerance; yet we feel hopeful along with a sucker punch. Here, it’s more American comfort food as we leave the theater thinking, “Oh, well, I guess everything will be fine.”

photos by Craig Schwartz

Immediate Family
Center Theatre Group
Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave.
ends on June 7, 2015
for tickets, call (213) 628-2772 or visit www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

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