What begins as a promising imitation of Netflix’s Mexican farce “The House of Flowers” ends in an extended potpourri of BS moments from the oeuvre of Garry Marshall. The play is “Chicken & Biscuits,” by Douglas Lyons, and it opened Sunday at Broadway’s Circle in the Square.
The BS moment is what Marshall (of “Happy Days” and “Laverne and Shirley” fame) perfected back in the 1970s, wherein 20 minutes of jokes on a TV episode are topped off with five minutes of saccharine sermonizing. In “Chicken & Biscuits,” Lyons doesn’t give us five minutes. He provides five different endings, each with its own hug-inducing, apology-laden lesson in bonding.
Death is easy, comedy is hard, and milking laughs at a funeral is nearly impossible. In Lyons’ two-hour play, siblings and their adult children tear into each other over a coffin. “Better than ‘Drag Race!’” cracks one guest in front of the corpse. If only.
The forced hilarity is never given a chance to build before Lyons hits us with some terribly sincere moment of reflection, whether its comes between two sisters (Cleo King and Ebony Marshall-Oliver), who can’t stand each other, or two same-sex lovers (Michael Urie and Devere Rogers), one of whom prefers the word “friend” to “partner,” much to the other guy’s dismay.
Lawrence E. Moten III’s set design cleverly lampoons the Jeffrey Hunter/Max von Sydow take on Jesus Christ. Also winning are Dede Ayite’s costumes, a couple of which do suggest “RuPaul’s Drag Race” on a budget; and, Aigner Mizzelle’s over-the-top performance as the deceased’s granddaughter effectively mimics a teenager on the verge of middle age. Throw in some real cross-dressing, and there’s a potential for zaniness, which, if transposed to a small basement theater downtown, might lead to comic pandemonium.
However, as directed by Zhailon Levingston in the Broadway basement theater that is Circle in the Square, the comedy keeps lurching into melodrama even before we get to the extended treacly denouement and those many endings. Among the heart-felt confessions of disinheritance and eating disorders, there’s a chat about why calling a homosexual man “a white boy” is an act of grace. As the object of that condescension, Urie displays his usual sense of expert timing in a role he’s played before and might consider retiring.
As the pastor and son-in-law of the deceased, Norm Lewis gets stuck presiding over a funeral that features no fewer than six testimonials. “Chicken & Biscuits” is a total success here: It replicates the experience of sitting through a half dozen testimonials at a funeral.