Review Roundup: Danai Gurira's FAMILIAR Opens at Playwrights Horizons

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Playwrights Horizons presents the New York premiere production of FAMILIAR, a new play by Obie Award-winner Danai Gurira, directed by Rebecca Taichman. FAMILIAR opens tonight, March 3, at Playwrights Horizons for a limited engagement plays through Sunday, March 27.

The cast features Ito Aghayere, Melanie Nicholls-King, Obie Award winner Roslyn Ruff, Harold Surratt, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Joe Tippett and Tony Award winner Tamara Tunie.

It's winter in Minnesota and a Zimbabwean family is preparing for the wedding of their eldest daughter (Ms. Ruff), a first-generation American. But when the bride insists on observing a traditional African custom, it opens a deep rift in the household. Rowdy and affectionate, FAMILIAR pitches tradition against assimilation, drawing a loving portrait of a family: the customs they keep, and the secrets they bury.

Let's see what the critics had to say...

Charles Isherwood, The New York Times: ...the impending nuptials in Danai Gurira's fiercely funny new play, "Familiar"...make even the most fraught weddings seem comparatively placid affairs. By the end of this engrossing comedy-drama...deep fissures within the family have been exposed, fresh wounds are rubbed raw and long-buried secrets are unearthed..."Familiar" is a play written in a significantly lighter key, even as it probes with subtlety and smarts the subject of immigration and assimilation...Ms. Gurira weaves issues of cultural identity and displacement, generational frictions and other meaty matters into dialogue that flows utterly naturally. Her engaging characters are drawn with sympathy and, under the crisp direction of Rebecca Taichman, "Familiar" stays firmly on course even as the complications pile up.

Marilyn Stasio, Variety: Sorry to say, the warm feelings generated by this open-hearted play turn cold in the second act. Seemingly unsure of where to go with all the plot possibilities she raises, Gurira makes the worst possible choice of darkening the narrative by revealing unbelievable and out-of-character family secrets. Considering the abrupt changes she has to put Marvelous through, Tunie's performance is all the more impressive. Some stage characters -- and the actors who play them -- are so vivid they can survive whatever absurdities the plot throws at them.

David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter: In Familiar, her first work set not in Africa but in the U.S., Gurira broadens her playwriting range with a comedy-drama about the gains and losses of cultural assimilation and dislocation, focusing on a Zimbabwean clan in Minnesota. The uneven play is stronger on amusing setup than turbulent follow-through, its second-act dramatic turn relying on forced revelations. But the characters and performances keep you glued through to the moving conclusion.

David Cote, Time Out NY: If Danai Gurira's new play were a piece of furniture in your parents' home, it would be large and overstuffed, upholstered in a vivid motley of foreign and domestic patterns. It might have the odd lump or creak, but who cares? It's heavenly to sprawl over for a couple of hours. Familiar is a vigorous, fresh comedy-drama that richochets from raw pathos to bawdy laughs, excavating deep cultural anxieties along the way. Gurira may not reinvent the family-secrets genre, but she makes it speak in musical new accents.

Robert Kahn, NBC New York: ...it's not just familiar names that make this two-act story about assimilation, tradition and identity comforting and rewarding -- it's how universal the story, finally, seems...Tunie is excellent as the fussy mother who escaped turmoil as a child and hasn't romanticized the past. Suratt is her match, as a henpecked husband with strong passions bubbling below the surface. Myra Lucretia Taylor is in grand operatic form as the insistent aunt...Ruff...unpeels multiple layers as a woman trying to maintain composure on the most important day of her life. Ito Aghayere is full of heart as younger sister Nyasha...The gold in Gurira's relatable immigrant story is an insistence on even-handedness and a dexterous way of introducing characters who gradually blossom into complex individuals, with motives anyone can appreciate and respect.

Joe Dziemianowicz, New York Daily News: In "Familiar," playwright Danai Gurira (Michonne in "The Walking Dead") spins this much-mined material into an entertaining and well-acted, if contrived, comedy-drama...The play's first half is dominated by laughs -- some too easy -- sparked by culture clashes. But after a big reveal things get serious -- and a bit too pointed to be persuasive -- as the conversation turns to assimilation and identity and what's left behind as we move ahead. The play's mood swings are extreme enough to merit a Zoloft prescription. And the dialogue can get too clever for its own good...Still, director Rebecca Tachman skillfully guides the fine-tuned ensemble through the various curves, highs and lows. Like family, "Familiar" is messy and resilient.

Jesse Green, Vulture: Familiar tries so hard to domesticate its characters with the recognizable rhythms of punch-line dialogue, while at the same time addressing very large issues of assimilation and repatriation, that it winds up doing neither very well, even as it remains improbable throughout...By the middle of Act Two this absence of verbal color and character depth has left the play wandering around in search of a genre, landing now and then on romantic comedy, farce, and family-secret soap opera...Unfortunately, the staging by Rebecca Taichman...is here unhelpful in focusing the action, or even the eye...For all its worthy questions, its frequent big laughs, and a few good performances, this is a play that leaves you feeling, in more ways than one, unsure where to look.

Christopher Kelly, NJ.com: "Familiar"...finds Gurira seamlessly blending farce, social provocation and old-fashioned melodrama to create a thoughtful, tremendously entertaining whole. Gurira appears to be maturing into the kind of playwright...whose mainstream accessibility masks an uncommonly nuanced worldview. No one-hit wonder is she...That the play never turns suffocatingly grim is a testament to the warmth and humanity of the actresses...director Rebccca Taichman and the superb cast keep all of this barreling along, scoring big laughs the one instant and making incisive observations about racial and generational differences the next.

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Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

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