R. Crumb would love what director Robert O’Hara has done with Aziza Barnes’ play “BLKS,” which opened Thursday at Off Broadway’s MCC after its 2017 world premiere at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company.
Early in Barnes’ comedy, three young women (Paige Gilbert, Alfie Fuller and Antoinette Crowe-Legacy) get ready to hit the clubs in Brooklyn, circa 2015. The music blasts so we can’t hear what they’re saying, but the body language is unmistakable — and hilarious.
Gilbert and Fuller, especially, sport the kind of full-frame, super-sturdy, ready-for-action bodies that can be threatening to some men but which Crumb worships, fetishizes and immortalizes in his classic comics. Equally fine, Dede Ayite’s Saran wrap costumes and J. Jared Janas’s exaggerated wigs, hair and makeup work to complete the picture of pre-party mayhem. These women aren’t afraid to show their muscle and use it.
Although fitfully funny, “BLKS” is never again quite this inspired, and that’s because Gilbert and Fuller spend too little time together on stage.
O’Hara’s fiercely kinetic direction clearly suits these two gifted actors whose gangbuster portrayals take no prisoners. Pitted together in the play’s early moments, they stoke each other’s fiery delivery. And they’re also pretty amazing when Barnes separates them to introduce other somewhat less fascinating characters. Imani (Fuller’s character) is so horny she’ll even put up with a rich white girl, spotted at the club, who’s identified in the Playbill as That Bitch on the Couch. Stuck in this thankless role, Marie Botha manages to underplay the character’s cluelessness despite Imani’s ridiculing her race and ravaging her body. Barnes graciously gives That Bitch a couple of good retorts to Imani’s hypersensitivity.
Octavia (Gilbert’s character) is also more than ready to get laid, and in the need for instant gratification, she momentarily puts aside her ill-defined relationship with another woman, Ry (Coral Pena). Octavia demands cunnilingus (a word never spoken in “BLKS”) from not one but two men (the beautifully double-cast Chris Myers).
In the role of Justin, Myers manages to be this comedy’s most sane, accommodating, all-around nice person. And he’s playing a straight guy! Such a character is a true novelty in today’s woke theater. Especially clever is Justin’s backpack of goodies that holds everything from a sleep mask to Crazy Glue (to repair broken high heels). Myers also manages not to be blown away by Hurricane Paige, although his very ample pecs almost upstage him. Perhaps O’Hara didn’t want the women to sport all the muscle in this show.
O’Hara is less successful with the merely loud Crowe-Legacy and Pena, who mugs her way through “BLKS” without ever hitting a definable character.
Barnes deftly handles her characters’ sexual fluidity, but near the end of “BLKS” she adds a few sentimental touches that even Neil Simon didn’t resort to in his 1960s heyday. (He saved that goop for his 1970s plays and films.) Barnes makes the far graver mistake of leaving her best creation (Imani, as played by Fuller) off stage for most of the play’s second half.
MCC’s new Robert W. Wilson Space is an odd theater. To paraphrase Oscar Hammerstein II, it’s broad where it should be narrow and narrow where it should be broad. Set designer Clint Ramos works a miracle by using that Cinemascope stage to create three rooms of a Bushwick apartment, as well as a club, a public restroom, and a variety of street scenes. Seeing the 100-minute “BLKS” is to tour Brooklyn at night and wake-up wasted. But in a good way.