You do not spend eight years at the heart of "The Cosby Show," the seminal TV show that revived the sitcom genre in part by extending to its reach to affluent and successful African-Americans, without learning a thing or three about mining family traumas for laughs. "Immediate Family," the highly entertaining new dramedy by Paul Oakley Stovall, is set in Hyde Park, rather than Brooklyn Heights, and the affluent black family at its core is not Mom, Dad and the kids but grown, far-flung siblings of the troubled Bryant family, who, were it not for the need to come together in the South Side homestead for a family wedding, are mostly estranged. But the basic plot here — one sibling comes home with a gay, white guy he hopes to marry — could well have formed the basis for an episode of that TV show, especially if a next-generation sequel were on the air now.
And Phylicia Rashad, who played that show's Clair Huxtable, shows a laudable insistence on high stakes, a fast-paced, rich comic business and characters into which stellar Chicago actors can sink their talents. She directs this show with a rich focus on the complexities of love and the most striking comedic vivacity. "Immediate Family," essentially a pre-Broadway tryout staged by commercial producers in rented space at the Goodman Theatre, just bursts with life.
It also has plenty to say. Just as "Clybourne Park" turned the tables on "A Raisin in the Sun," you could say that "Immediate Family" does the same with "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?," from both a racial and a sexually-oriented perspective. Whether or not the widely held assumption that upscale black families are more resistant to gay rights actually holds water, it's indisputably true few plays have probed the topic in the black community. Stovall focuses his action primarily on whether one of the grumpier sisters, Evy (Shanesia Davis) will accept the new life of brother Jesse (the moving Phillip James Brannon) who has thrown in his romantic lot with Kristian (Patrick Sarb), a handsome Swedish photographer. He takes on some important issues here. And yet he does so without preaching, due to a carefully balanced slate of empathetic characters, all of whom have their carefully chartered reasons for their views, and a gently self-parodying authorial sense of humor.
There is, for sure, something delicious in making the invading white character a Swede — you cannot, Stovall seems to be arguing, get any whiter than that. Especially since he lives in Minneapolis. Then again, so does Jesse, very happily.
"Immediate Family" is no font of structural innovation. A one-set, 90-minute show taking place entirely within 24 hours, the play relies on the device that Jesse has mostly kept this relationship secret from his sibs, but has been pressed into revelation by the need for Kristian's complimentary photographic talents at the wedding of his good-dude, go-along-to-get-along brother Tony (the funny Kamal Angelo Bolden). Stovall throws a couple of other characters into his mix of 30- and 40-something professionals, including a spunky lesbian friend of the family called Nina (played, with hilarious gusto, by J. Nicole Brooks), there mostly to make fun and trouble and offer the liberal point of view, and a wound-tight, half-sister Ronnie (Cynda Williams, who shows her teeth when needed), there to point out that the deceased heterosexual patriarch who spawned this crew and built this Hyde Park home was far from perfect himself, and that families, be they black or white, long have variances from the perceived ideal. But the play is mostly about the relationship between Evy and Jesse.
The problem, at this juncture of the play's development, is that Stovall pushes Evy too far to two extremes. The requisite tension of the piece requires her to struggle with the gay relationship, of course, but she is far too much the villain in the first hour. Ultimately, the reverse problem rears its head as Stovall wants Evy to change more in one day than, alas, people ever actually manage. Those edges need sanding down — and the stagy final tableau needs retiring — not least because the sense of life as it is lived is so acutely present elsewhere on John Iacovelli's richly detailed set. There also is some missing information: We never know, for example, what the characters' father did for a living, which would be interesting, and the play could use more details of its social milieu. We are, it seems, around the corner from the Obama residence and more of a sense of place and its history would enrich the play.
All that said, "Immediate Family" is an appealing, commercial and accessible play from a mostly unknown but demonstrably talented writer. The contrivances of plot are not bothersome because the family dynamic is explored with such spunky verisimilitude and, well, the play is just too good a time. As laughs rung loudly around the theater on Saturday night — nobody was bored or confused for an instant — it started to seem that "Immediate Family," if the work gets done and the stars align, might well turn out to be quite a timely and important American play. Or movie.
When: Through Aug. 5
Where: The Goodman's Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Tickets: $20-54 at 312-443-3800 or immediatefamilyplay.com