BWW Review: Danai Gurira's FAMILIAR, a Warm and Funny Family Drama
Playwright Danai Gurira is sure coming in like a lion this March. While the Public Theater transfer of her wartime drama ECLIPSED starts its home stretch of Broadway previews, Playwrights Horizons opens her newest comedy/drama FAMILIAR, which premiered at Yale Repertory Theatre.
But while the former deals with issues that, hopefully, few playgoers will personally encounter, there is indeed a comfortable familiarity about her new one. Whether in real life or on stage, matters of wedding disasters, cultural assimilation and family discoveries aren't exactly unique, but with the combination of Gurira's well-drawn and interesting characters and director Rebecca Taichman's sterling production, which flows ever-so-smoothly from funny to charming to grippingly emotional, FAMILIAR feels rather fresh.
Designer Clint Ramos is sure to have Off-Broadway audiences drooling with real estate envy with the chic two-level suburban Minneapolis home owned by lawyer Donald (Harold Surratt) and biochemist Marvelous (Tamara Tunie), who moved to America from Zimbabwe.
Aside from a running gag where Donald keeps placing a decorative map of their former country on the wall and Marvelous keeps taking it down, their lives seem to have assimilated nicely into upper-middle class America. He loves playing squash and she can't get enough of Rachel Maddow.
There's initial friction with the arrival of their younger daughter Nyasha (Ito Agghayere), a free-spirited singer/songwriter and feng shui consultant living in New York and now feeling the afterglow of cultural awakening after her first visit to "Zim."
It's the weekend when her older sister, Tendi (Roslyn Ruff), a successful lawyer and born-again Christian, is marrying Chris (Joby Earle), who co-founded a global human rights nonprofit. They've both vowed abstinence until they're wed.
Chris being white is not an issue. What is an issue for Marvelous is that Tendi wants there to be some recognition of the family heritage incorporated into the festivities and has arranged for her mother's older sister Annie (Myra Lucretia Taylor) to be flown in to conduct the roora, a ceremony where the groom bargains a price for the bride. The roora requires a mediator to represent the groom, so Chris hesitantly recruits his genial goofball brother Brad (Joe Tippett), who has a funny habit of saying the wrong things for the best of reasons.
Donald knows better than to get involved when the strong women in his life have at each other and Marvelous and Annie's younger sister Maggie (Melanie Nicholls-King) mostly just keeps her wine glass filled while taking it in from the sidelines.
Meanwhile, Nyasha and Brad, after a wild variation on "meeting cute," start showing some initial interest in each other.
The comical spirit of the first act gradually gives way to serious matters of self-discovery in the second half after the revealing of a family secret. The playwright graciously refuses to take sides and while feelings are hurt and illusions are shattered, the sense of family support, enhanced by the fine work of the ensemble, creates tear-jerking empathy for all involved.
There's a lovely warmth and sweetness about FAMILIAR, and engaging balance of humor, social politics and love.