First Nighter: Robert O'Hara's 'Barbecue' Sizzles a Bit, Sam Shepard's "Fool for Love" is Catnip for Actors

The first act of Robert (Bootycandy) O'Hara's Barbecue consists of four scenes, two each in alternation, depicting a lower-class white family and a lower-class black family on what looks like a picnic in a shady Middle America forest preserve.

Curiously, the five members of both families, on vivid display at the Public, share the same names -- James T. (Mark Damon Johnson, Paul Niebanck), Lillie Anne (Becky Ann Baker, Kim Wayans), Marie (Arden Myrin, Heather Alicia Simms), Adlean (Constance Shulman, Benja Kay Thomas) and Barbara (Tamberla Perry, Samantha Soule).

As the act progresses and no actual barbecuing happens, it's revealed that in each family unit James T., Lillie Anne, Marie and Adlean aren't present simply to scream and shout at each other over long-brewing resentments. They've planned this outing as an intervention. Prone to drinking and drugging as they are --Lillie Anne more or less excepted--they're worried about sibling Barbara, whose substance abuse apparently outdoes theirs by a country mile.

Since the actions of both groups virtually mirror each others' and the term "bad behavior" only begins to describe how they engage intramurally (though more verbally than physically), the point playwright O'Hara's looks to be establishing is that white trash and black trash are equally trashy.

And while some of the tactics they use to bait each other are occasionally amusing, there's a whiff of superiority about his intentions. There's the sense that O'Hara is sending a middle-class audience the snootily comforting "aren't the less privileged just awful?" message. Not too accepting of him, is it? The poor(er) may always be with us, but that's no excuse to denigrate them as relentlessly as O'Hara does almost to the act's end when the two Barbaras, the supposed interventions, finally arrive.

But then the cunning dramatist pulls a fast one. Having led the patrons through four scenes that have more than started to try patience, he shifts gears in as radical a manner as any sleight-of-hand playwright has in recent, and even not so recent, memory.

As a result and because of the Barbecue structure, just about any further description of the action -- and that means the entire second act--would turn into a monumental spoiler. Perhaps it's acceptable to indulge a quasi-spoiler and report that for much of the comedy's remainder the two Barbaras, who heretofore have said just about zilch, take focus. One of them begins to resemble an actual celebrity along the lines of Whitney Houston and one of them, a memoirist, feels partially derived from James Frey's notorious account of his life as an addict.

In other words, O'Hara's seeming satire of a stratum of American society morphs into a satire of a completely different stripe. He's sending up commercial cynicism as manifested in contemporary American life. Okay, maybe it's also fair to say he makes an implied larger point by focusing narrowly on publishing and Hollywood. In his wily way, he even gets around to an Oscar race.

While he's at it, he's created 10 juicy parts for his cast to play under Kent Gash's colorful direction and in Paul Tazewell's often hilarious costumes that take into account the attraction women often have to leopard spots. Perry's Barbara is at first super-confident, as the script has it, but begins to crumble, where Soule's Barbara, who's initially slightly intimidated by those second-act circumstances, gains her footing with aplomb. The others grab hold of their exuberant roles as if they were caged lions thrown thick steaks.

Whether the elongated nature of the first act is compensated for by the second act--which surely depends on falling for the second-act development--is up in the air. But O'Hara can be thanked for taking the risk as well as for much of the furious humor he unleashes.
******************
Since Sam Shepard's 1983 Fool for Love didn't appeal to me then and not in subsequent productions I've seen, I wondered whether this latest one, at Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman, would finally change my mind. Though when the lights went up on it, I was impressed by Dane Leffrey's claustrophobic representation of a motel room on the edge of the Mohave Desert, nothing that ensued changed my ho-hum attitude towards the script.

Anyone who knows Shepard's plays knows he's impelled to assess the barren quality of American culture through depictions of the spiritually depleted American West. Fool for Love is no exception. (Mohave Desert = emotionally arid--get it?)

Eddie (Sam Rockwell) and May (Nina Arianda) are battling out their unspecified relationship alone, although sitting immobile in a chair just aside from the sterile motel accommodation is The Old Man (Gordon David Weiss.) The assumption is that the two are lovers, perhaps attempting to overcome an estrangement--or perhaps not.

For the longest time in the 75-minute one-act, The Old Man says nothing. Eventually, he addresses either Eddie or May, while whoever else is in the room hears nothing of what's exchanged. Eventually roped into the fray is sincere gentleman caller Martin (Tom Pelphrey), who doesn't quite know how to play the quivering vibes.

As those 75 minutes tick by, the connections between Eddie, May and The Old Man become clear. That's to say they become clearer, although many patrons may well be left figuratively trudging through the Mohave sand, trying to catch up with what's transpiring -- and that includes an explosive before-fade-out occurrence that lighting designer Justin Townsend executes well. Sound designer Ryan Rumery also has a few ear-catching turns.

For patrons the effort put into making sense of events may not be worth it. What does go a fair stretch towards rendering the expended efforts rewarding are the performances. At first glimpsed sitting at the edge of the bed bent over with her hair hiding her face, tuft-like, Arianda plays the labile May as if she's a tornado gathering force. Rockwell sees the cowboy-hatted Eddie as a not-yet-ignited stick of dynamite. He's all contained menace. Weiss grabs attention for much of the time by doing nothing to grab attention and so is that much more attention-grabbing when he goes for it. Pelfrey does befuddled nice guy exactly right.

It may be that the lure for actors of such pungent roles explains the frequent Fool for Love sightings. Indeed, it may be that Shepard's demanding work-out is more entertaining for the performers who get to take on Eddie and May than it is for anyone who gets to watch them.