Monday, February 22, 2016

Familiar ***

This lively, overstuffed new play by Danai Gurira (Eclipsed) now in previews at Playwrights Horizons runs the gamut from sitcom to high drama in its two plus hours. The action takes place in real time late in the afternoon before the rehearsal dinner for the wedding of the Chinyamwira family’s 34-year-old daughter Tendi (Roslyn Ruff). Tendi and her Caucasian fiancĂ© Chris (Joby Earle) are members of a charismatic Christian church who have vowed premarital abstinence. Tendi’s parents Donald (Harold Surratt), a successful attorney, and Marvelous (Tamara Tunie), a scientist/professor who has assimilated to American ways with a vengeance, left Zimbabwe over 30 years ago and are living the good life in a suburb of Minneapolis. Clint Ramos’s finely detailed two-level set presents a house worthy of a home design magazine, sure to evoke real estate envy in the heart of every New Yorker. Tendi’s younger sister, Nyasha (Ito Aghayere), a singer/songwriter/feng shui consultant based in New York has just returned from a trip to Zimbabwe to get in touch with her roots, but her family doesn't express much interest in her trip. Margaret (Melanie Nichols-King), Marvelous’s depressed younger sister with a drinking problem might well have wandered in from a production of “A Delicate Balance.” A crisis develops when Marvelous’s elder sister Anne (Myra Lucretia Taylor) arrives unexpectedly from Zimbabwe, determined to perform roora, an ancient bridal price ritual, over the strenuous objection of Marvelous. Sibling rivalry is strong in both generations of sisters. When he learns that the roora ceremony requires the groom to have an intermediary, Chris hurriedly recruits his slacker younger brother Brad (Joe Tippett), with hilarious results. During the second act, the mood gradually darkens and the revelation of a shocking family secret changes everything. The play’s many extremely funny moments make the darkward turn all the more unsettling. Director Rebecca Taichman has nimbly steered the actors through the change of tone. The strong ensemble acting succeeds in making the specific seem universal. Susan Hilferty's costumes contribute greatly to the production. The humanity and good humor went a long way toward making me willing to overlook some of the holes in the plot. It’s far from perfect, but well worth seeing. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including intermission.

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