Broadway review by Adam Feldman
The beginning of Douglas Lyons’s broad comedy Chicken & Biscuits promises comic mayhem to come. The beloved pastor of a Black church in New Haven has died; his family is gathering to honor him, and his kindly son-in law, Reginald (Norm Lewis), also a pastor, is set to assume the pulpit. “Today should be a day of peace and healing for the family, not chaos,” he reminds his righteous wife, Beneatta (Cleo King). But her tacky sister Beverly (Ebony Marshall-Oliver) and Beverly’s teenage daughter, La’Trice (Aigner Mizzelle), don’t share that sense of decorum, and Beneatta’s gay son (Devere Rogers) has been to enough Black funerals to have a sense of what’s in store. “By the end of the night,” he assures his nervous white boyfriend (Michael Urie), “it’s a full on party.”
That party, sadly, never gets started. Just when the comedy should gain momentum, Lyons stops it cold with a lengthy and mostly unfunny memorial service: a succession of sincere tributes to a man we don’t know, culminating in a set-piece eulogy delivered by Lewis (who is otherwise wasted) and a last-minute surprise that comes out of nowhere and tends back there again. Sentimental confessions and reconciliations ensue, but the characters and situations have not been shaped carefully enough to earn them. Advertised as 100 minutes long, Chicken & Biscuits actually lasts two full hours without intermission, and despite some successful laugh lines and several game performances, it drags its weight with palpable effort.
That’s a shame, because Chicken & Biscuits clearly has its heart in the right place, and the cast and creative team include more than two dozen people making their Broadway debuts. But their lack of seasoning shows: the writing is blobby, much of the design is unpolished, and young director Zhailon Levingston sometimes seems lost in dealing with the challenging three-quarters thrust stage at Circle in the Square. (Key information is unavailable to large parts of the audience.) These things may not have mattered as much in the play’s premiere at Queens Theatre last year, when tickets cost $25, but most seats at this production cost more than $100. The enthusiasm to bring Chicken & Biscuits to Broadway is understandable, but audiences paying these prices have the right to expect something less undercooked.
Chicken and Biscuits. Circle in the Square (Broadway). By Douglas Lyons. Directed by Zhailon Levingston. With Cleo King, Norm Lewis, Michael Urie, Ebony Marshall-Oliver. Running time: 2hrs. No intermission.