Phillip James Brannon, Jessica Frances Dukes, Benja Kay Thomas and Lance Coadie Williams in Bootycandy. Photo: Joan Marcus
Robert O'Hara's Bootycandy is rude, raucous, vulgar and gloriously funny. It's a happy sign when established not-for-profits like Playwrights Horizons can offer such outspoken fare as mainstage offerings to their subscribers. In this case, one hopes it will pay off. At the final preview, the mixed audience included some octogenarians who were infirm on their feet but pretty much doubled over with laughter.
Bootycandy is what used to be called a "coming of age" play, with the protagonist in this case a young man called Sutter (Phillip James Brannon). We meet Sutter as a child, wearing Superman underwear and a mile-high Afro, his room festooned with posters for the Jackson Five, The Electric Company and H. R. Pufnstuf. The nature of the evening is instantly clear, as he engages in double-edged conversation with his eye-popping, cartoon-like mother. Her definition of the title phrase: "It's like candy to the booty." Sutter responds, innocently, "So can I lick it?"
The play is written in eleven scenes, in two brisk acts, and an unusual thing happens: the second scene is funnier than the first, the third is even funnier than the second, and so on. We get a Reverend (Lance Coadie Williams) sermonizing against gossip by the "I Heard folk," working himself into a froth until he comes out from behind the pulpit and reveals that he himself offers something to gossip about. We get four women--or rather two actresses (Jessica Frances Dukes, Benja Kay Thomas) in split outfits, down to their fingernails and eyelashes--jockeying their way through a ludicrous phone conversation about a baby called Genitalia. We get Sutter and a young white man (Jesse Pennington) in a succession of seduction scenes, with a game-changing revelation along the way.
O'Hara pulls out the rug by ending the first act with a playwright's conference run by a hapless Playwrights Horizons moderator, in which the author justifies the evening and leaves us with some provocative and unsettling statements. (Playwright on panel, pointing to audience: Are those subscribers? Moderator: Not for long.) The highlight--or, rather, the next highlight--is the scene which opens the second act. "Happy Meal," featuring Sutter's not-at-all happy family seated around the table with the remnants of a fast food dinner, is blisteringly, frighteningly funny.
Jesse Pennington and Phillip James Brannon in Bootycandy. Photo: Joan Marcus
Brannon, who made a strong impression in Anthony Giardina's City of Conversation at Lincoln Center last spring, is perfect here as the likable and understated hero. The four others shuttle through multiple roles, each of them leaving us with at least one strong image: Williams as the Reverend; Dukes as the mother in the opening scene; Pennington as the woebegone moderator; and Thomas as both the "Happy Meal" mother--complaining about her co-worker Barbara, and why this turns out to be so funny I can't explain--and as the grown Genitalia. You wouldn't expect the word genitalia to provide an unending supply of belly laughs, but it does here. The author has Genitalia divorce her partner, Intifada.
In a program note, author/director O'Hara describes Bootycandy as what would happen if "Richard Pryor and Jackie Mason and RuPaul got together to have a baby." In theatrical terms, consider it the bastard child of George C. Wolfe's The Colored Museum and David Ives' All in the Timing, with patches of dialogue seemingly patterned on Abbott & Costello's "Who's on First" routine.
Anyway you look at it, Bootycandy leaps out at the audience and won't let go. Yes, there is some language of what we might call a strong sexual nature, with little left to the imagination; and yes, one of the characters is called upon to disrobe, providing the most explosively funny use of nudity in recent memory. Elsewhere, the author--through his alter-ego Sutter--explains his wise approach. "I think the audience should choke. It wasn't easy to write it, and it shouldn't be easy to experience it." Point made, Mr. O'Hara, and you're welcome.
Bootycandy, written and directed by Robert O'Hara, opened September 10, 2014 and continues through October 12 at Playwrights Horizons