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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
That the portrait is still displayed is telling. The current generation of Bryants, however, are by no means stuffy people. Indeed, every reuniting encounter with a sibling, a neighbor or a longtime friend is punctuated with a dance, a bit of patter or a salty series of hand-slaps. And when someone wins a hand in a round of the card game bid whist? Get ready for show time!
This general current of sibling friskiness permeates the Mark Taper Forum's production of Immediate Family, lightening and leavening what might otherwise be an overly earnest tale of familial foibles and intolerance. You get the sense that playwright Paul Oakley Stovall wants his audience grinning instead of squirming, and director Phylicia Rashad and her cast of six are only too happy to oblige.
Though this family is dysfunctional to potentially comic levels, Stovall's play is not entirely a romp. The wedding of Tony Bryant (played by Kamal Angelo Bolden) brings home his brother, prodigal son Jesse Bryant Jr. (Bryan Terrell Clark) along with his partner Kristian (Mark Jude Sullivan), who will be photographing the nuptials. Jesse has not quite explained to his siblings 1. that he is gay and 2. that Kristian (who is also white) is more than simply a roommate.
Eldest sister Evy (Shanesia Davis), who is as much mother to Tony as big sister, is caught somewhere between loving her family to death and suffocating them with her intolerance and piousness. Half-sister Ronnie (Cynda Williams) has no problem with Jesse's life choices, but she has some major hostility brewing toward Evy. Rounding out the company is Jesse's longtime friend Nina (J. Nicole Brooks) who wears crazy outfits (designed by ESosa) and lusts after anyone wearing a skirt. We never meet Tony's bride-to-be, but she will need patience if she is going to marry into this nuthouse. Kristian will face a similar problem.
Stovall throws in a few family revelations to keep tensions high, but nothing on the order of, say, August: Osage County, allowing Immediate Family to clock in at an efficient 100 minutes. Indeed, Stovall's plot hints at Guess Who's Coming to Dinner in reverse, with Evy and Jesse equally in need of enlightenment. Their differing life choices notwithstanding, Evy, Jesse, Tony and Ronnie have all the dynamics of a close-knit clan whose members push each other's buttons with expertise.
The cast deftly plugs into the sibling dysfunction, and the interplay between Clark and Davis, Davis and Bolden, Clark and Williams crackles with smarts and humor alike. Sullivan's Kristian — the play's intruder — brings a credible gravitas to the proceedings, helping to anchor the play as something more than just a family free for-all. Stovall has written a honey of a blow-up scene which follows the aforementioned game of bid whist. Evy had requested that the game be restricted to “immediate family” only, but of course in this play, that term is outdated and in need of revision practically from the second it leaves Evy's lips.
Immediate Family's breezy tone and rhythms are a natural fit for Rashad's directorial style. The Tony Award-winning actress has previously helmed several productions of August Wilson's work as well as the Goodman Theatre production of Immediate Family. Her touch on this less weighty work is light, but the play's poignancy still comes through.