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Familiar: Theater review by David Cote
If Danai Gurira’s new play were a piece of furniture in your parents’ home, it would be large and overstuffed, upholstered in a vivid motley of foreign and domestic patterns. It might have the odd lump or creak, but who cares? It’s heavenly to sprawl out on for a couple of hours. Familiar is a vigorous, fresh comedy-drama that ricochets from raw pathos to bawdy laughs, excavating deep cultural anxieties along the way. Gurira may not reinvent the family-secrets genre, but she makes it speak in musical new accents.
At a basic level, Familiar is an intergenerational immigrant tale about assimilation and the slippery concept of “home.” Our domestic setting is a suburban-Minneapolis two-level house (handsomely designed by Clint Ramos) owned by longtime expats Donald and Marvelous (Harold Surratt, Tamara Tunie). He pines for the old country, his nostalgia signified by dogged attempts to hang a map of Zimbabwe on the wall; she briskly orders him to take it down. Their daughters are also sharply different from one another: Straight-arrow Christian lawyer Tendi (Roslyn Ruff) has a tart relationship with Nyasha (Ito Aghayere), a songwriter trying to reconnect with her African roots.
Tendi, along with her relatives, is readying for her imminent wedding to the white Chris (Joby Earle, endearingly overpolite) and has invited her aunt Anne (the formidable Myra Lucretia Taylor) to perform a traditional roora ceremony to bless the union. To do this, they rope in Chris’s slacker-dude brother Brad (a very funny Joe Tippett) to act as a go-between. With the stage thus set for maximum culture clash, sibling resentment and hidden agendas, Gurira lets her characters loose. Do things get crazy, loud or messy? Yes indeed, and thank goodness.
A less-committed cast or a director lacking Rebecca Taichman’s wit and verve might have let Familiar descend into ethnic-sitcom territory or suffer whiplash from the second-act dance between rom-com and identity crisis. But the piece works, throwing red meat to an excellent cast and offering plenty of emotional hooks for the audience. Gurira is also now represented on Broadway with the equally powerful Eclipsed. Here's hoping her theatrical clan keeps on growing.—David Cote
Playwrights Horizons (Off Broadway). By Danai Gurira. Directed by Rebecca Taichman. With ensemble cast. 2hrs 15mins. One intermission.
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote