Can anything in theater still make audiences uncomfortable? In Bootycandy, playwright Robert O'Hara thinks vulgarity-laced, brazen explosions of gay and racial stereotypes can do the trick by shocking our diaphragms into eruptions of raucous, if somewhat shamefaced, laughter.
He'd be wrong.
O'Hara's 11-scene work loosely focuses on a handful of characters, including Sutter (Phillip James Brannon). First a precocious child in the 1970s asking his mother the meaning of dirty words, he later appears as a Michael Jackson-obsessed, sexually abused teen in the 1980s-era sketch "Happy Meal," then grows into a gay adult dealing with badly requited hetero-love in the late-1990s' "Drinks and Desire" and 2000s' "The Last Gay Play," in which he reverses a drunk's gay-baiting with tragic consequences.
Throughout these sketches, Brannon and four other actors deliver superb characterizations of about two dozen roles: lesbians undergoing divorce, gossiping women, a cross-dressing preacher.
Clint Ramos' vivid costumes, wigs, and carousel set re-create each era with original movie posters, vintage Reeboks, and pantsuits, sweaters, and vinyl jackets that both parody and pay homage to three decades of sitcoms.
The initial audience outbursts at the outrageous or the outré faded quickly. Some of that can be laid to O'Hara's direction, which insists on lingering on each joke or "teachable moment," but most of the failing lies in his need for an editor to keep one-note skits (four women gossiping about another who's naming her daughter Genitalia) from raking through 10 minutes of quickly cooling comedic coals.
Despite its attempts at comedy, Bootycandy succeeds most in its attempts to build poignancy out of the gay African American experience, drawing insights that "sometimes, desire is better desired" and that tampering with affection can lead to life-changing disaster.
In these moments, O'Hara's play achieves what his script suggests: "The work should be work." If you're willing to sift through two hours of tedious jokes to find these nuggets of polished drama, you just might ponder them long enough to remember theater's power.
Through June 16 at the Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St. Tickets: $39-$66. 215-546-7824 or wilmatheater.org.