Such insight and provocation is otherwise rare in “Chicken & Biscuits.” So is any real tension. Whether the family will accept Logan, whether the sisters will reconcile, whether the mystery guest at the funeral (NaTasha Yvette Williams) will be explained are barely even questions; they’re more like a packing list. In that sense, the play feels dramatically complacent and underdeveloped, suggesting that its trip to Broadway after a pandemic-foreshortened run at the Queens Theater in 2020 might have benefited from a stop along the way.
Yet it’s at least a little unfair to look at a family comedy that way. Lyons, an actor himself before turning to playwriting — this is his Broadway debut as an author, and Levingston’s as a director — is operating here in a different tradition from most contemporary fare, which is built on ideas and argumentation.
“Chicken & Biscuits” is built on sensation, more like a musical or even an opera. In the long scene of the funeral itself, the eulogies by several family members function as arias, delivered in the old-school park-and-bark style. They are not concerned with forwarding the action so much as bringing aural pleasure, and indeed Lewis’s satire of a preacherly stemwinder, with drawn out vowels and pounced-on syncopations, is more than halfway to song.
In any case, Lyons is more interested in the family’s moment-by-moment byplay — its laugh track and tear track — than in drawing realistic character portraits or scoring sociological points. The cast, including five actors also making their Broadway debuts, for the most part fills in the characters’ outlines confidently. As for sociological points, you could hardly say more in a treatise than Dede Ayite does with the costumes and Nikiya Mathis with the wigs.
So if “Chicken & Biscuits” isn’t a profound work, that doesn’t mean it’s pointless. Its gravy is just another name for schmaltz. Thinking back, as a Jew, on the Jewish families that Broadway audiences learned to love in not-very-sophisticated, high-cholesterol comedies, I have to admit that even as I alternately laughed and cringed at their caricatures, I felt relieved of the more pernicious problem of otherness.
Representation matters. I see many great and necessary new works about the problem of Blackness in a racist society — or rather, the problem of whiteness. They are filled with anguish and unfunny funerals. What I rarely get to see are works about Black American life that are defiantly not problem plays. Their sunniness is just as necessary, however garish the aquamarine and pimped-out the corpse.
Chicken & Biscuits
Through Jan. 2 at Circle in the Square Theater, Manhattan; 212-239-6200, chickenandbiscuitsbway.com. Running time: 2 hours.