New York Times


“A Pop-Tune Counterpoint To a Family’s Wisecracks”

Review by Bruce Weber

The Clarks, who own a successful funeral home, are the richest black family in the fictional town of Kent, S.C. But they're just ordinary folks, at least if you believe what you see on television.

As the focus of ''Blue,'' an amiable featherweight of a play by Charles Randolph-Wright that opened yesterday at the Gramercy Theater, they are a clan built to prime-time specifications: Peggy, an overbearing mom; Samuel Jr., a forbearing Dad; Tillie, a crusty grandma; and two sons, Samuel III, a renegade 17-year-old, and Reuben, an observant 12-year-old.

Their individual quirks and conflicts are more genially tickling than poignant, drawing on the comforts of pop culture. A dinner-table scene in the opening act, which is set in the 1970's, is exemplary. In it, Peggy (Phylicia Rashad) pompously introduces each course of an Italian meal in Italian; her elder son, Samuel (Howard W. Overshown), complains after his coiffure is jostled, ''You made me mess up my 'fro,'' recalling John Travolta's declaration ''You hit my hair'' in ''Saturday Night Fever''; and much is made of the contrast between Peggy's presumption to worldliness and the lack of sophistication of Samuel's girlfriend, LaTonya (Messeret Stroman), an excitable, loud-voiced young woman with a country accent and a penchant for hot pants.

The play, which has the enlivening feature of original music by the pop composer Nona Hendryx, is far more class- than race-conscious. Its title character, Blue Williams (Michael McElroy), a Luther Vandross-like pop crooner, does give the show a soulful soundtrack. Blue floats in and out, invisible to the cast but not to the audience, performing Ms. Hendryx's songs as a kind of haunting spirit. Peggy, it turns out, is obsessed with him.

But the affluent Clarks -- like the Huxtables, the television family of ''The Cosby Show,'' of which Ms. Rashad was famously a part -- have little to say about black culture as opposed to white culture, or about race relations in general. Of course they don't say anything about Jewish culture, either, which you may feel, given Mr. Randolph-Wright's penchant for wisecracking dialogue, is the main difference between the Clarks and one of Neil Simon's families.

The story, which takes place over about two decades, is standard family evolution stuff, narrated in retrospect by the elder version of Reuben (Hill Harper). And though there is a scandal that waits until near the end to be unveiled, the play is so thoroughly infused with middle-brow and middle-class wishful thinking that the Clarks end up the stronger for it. By the end you feel as if the pilot were over and the weekly series were about to begin.

Still and all, as presented by the Roundabout Theater Company and directed by Sheldon Epps, this is a polished and silky-smooth production, one that takes a largely familiar recipe and prepares it with élan. It's visually handsome but not fancy. The interior of the Clarks' home is rendered by the set designer, James Leonard Joy, as an airy two stories structured around an atrium, and the costumes, by Debra Bauer, are snazzy and particularly amusing in the first act with their depiction of 70's chic. And Ms. Hendryx's lush and melodic original songs are layered onto the narrative seamlessly.

Mr. Epps has guided the show to an unruffled pace; its two and half hours go down without impatience. And the cast (which includes Randall Shepperd as Samuel Jr., Peggy's husband; Chad Tucker as the young Reuben; and Jewell Robinson as Grandma Tillie) is uniformly at ease, which makes the ensemble work appealing. Ms. Rashad, as the play's late-emerging central figure, is quite deft in walking the line between Peggy's heavy-handed pretensions to cultural sophistication and societal stature and her self-conscious amusement at her own princesslike affect.

At Peggy's first entrance she's carrying two fur coats that she just bought, having been unable to decide between them, and Ms. Rashad, chuckling at her own folly, begins the process of letting us see in Peggy what her husband does; she's willful and controlling, yes, but needy, loving and unpredictable as well.

The most unusual feature of the play is Blue himself, whose role in the Clark family turns out to be more than mere musical inspiration. But for the better part of the story, Blue is something of a specter in a slick blue suit. He wanders the set, a dapper ghost, singing along with recordings of his music.

It adds a rather sodden layer of metaphor: ''Music is memory,'' declares the adult Reuben, looking back as the play begins. But it also adds a pleasing layer of entertainment. Even if ''Blue'' isn't a play that sends you out thinking, you might leave whistling.

Tony Howell