There's Smoke and Ire at Robert O'Hara's ‘Barbecue'

So intent on avoiding spoilers are “Barbecue” playwright Robert O’Hara and The Public Theater that programs for the two-act dark comedy, now open downtown, aren’t being distributed until intermission.

That leaves reviewers in a pickle. If I so much as talk about the full cast, I’m going to ruin at least one of two clever surprises in the sassy, if ultimately overcooked script. (Below, I’ll name characters without identifying the actors playing them.)

The premise we begin with is that four of the trashy O’Mallery siblings have gathered in a park to stage an intervention for a fifth, whose spiral of out-of-control drug use has them all concerned … when they can put aside their own vices long enough to give a damn.

The first act is a riot. I loved the way brother James T silences sister Marie when she starts in on him about his weed habit. Things head off in a different direction after intermission, when “Barbecue” forms more pointedly into a meditation on lying, and how we all do it when we construct the narratives of “us.”

O’Hara, the "Bootycandy" author, is fortunate to have actress Tamberla Perry -- with a performance that riffs on rumors about Whitney Houston and Oprah Winfrey -- to help make those points. Still, I was so intrigued by the territory the author wades into early on that I was disappointed he swerved. O'Hara ends with 20 minutes of cute, but well-worn insights into the nature of celebrity.

“Barbecue” has winning performances throughout by Becky Ann Baker (of TV’s “Freaks and Geeks” and “Girls”) and Kim Wayans, the actress (“In Living Color”) and writer with a set of famous siblings herself. “Bootycandy” alum Benja Kay Thomas is on hand also, and so is Constance Shulman of “Orange Is the New Black.” Direction is by Kent Gash.

Designer Clint Ramos has the “city park” vibe down pat, from the unforgiving metal picnic tables to the standing hibachis that look as if they haven’t been scoured since the discovery of fire.

Ultimately, O’Hara has written a comedy about getting reality to fit the truth we’ve previously constructed for it. "Barbecue" is different and definitely worth seeing -- but after a point, I had to give up listening for anything fresh and just let the playwright bat me around with the figurative stack of Us magazines he so ably wields.

“Barbecue,” through Nov. 1 at The Public’s Newman Theater, 425 Lafayette St. Tickets: $50 and up. Call 212-967-7555.

Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn

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