Chicago — The backyard barbecue may be nearly as popular as the well-appointed living room as a backdrop for white people’s problems. Rebecca Gilman’s 2009 play The Crowd You’re In With used that setting to explore the conflicts around parenthood and marriage. Her fellow Chicago-based playwright, Brett Neveu, created a reunion-that-never-happens in The Last Barbecue.
But Chicago of course has no monopoly on barbecues or angst. Two Chicago companies have produced Dallas playwright Matt Lyle’s acclaimed Barbecue Apocalypse, which premiered in 2014 at Kitchen Dog Theater. The now-defunct Chicago storefront troupe The Ruckus presented it in 2015. But in the age of You-Know-Who and God-Knows-What’s-Next, it hits home with renewed blasts of gallows humor in the current Cuckoo’s Theater Project staging by director Marc James.
Deb (Emily Lindberg) and Mike (Kyle Burch) are the nervous hosts at the start of the play, fearful that their friends will find both the ambience and food lacking. The lawnmower has broken down and Mike isn’t even sure how to light the brand-new grill. Given that their friends Ash (Daniel Shtivelberg) and Lulu (Elena Tubridy) are foodies who also consistently top the lists of best local décor, there’s a lot of pressure. Toss in Win (Felix Abidor), Mike’s wildly successful frenemy, and Win’s fresh-from-auditioning-for-the-Rockettes girlfriend, Glory (Ashley Greenwood), and it’s easy to see why anxiety is the key ingredient to this meal.
Deb tries to play up Mike’s carpentry skills (he built the deck, which does look rather impressive in Bart O’Toole’s nicely detailed set design on the small Prop Thtr stage). She also inflates the sales price on the lone story he’s sold since finishing his degree in creative writing. But Ash and Lulu keep checking their phones (something is blowing up on Twitter) and Win can’t stop needling Mike about his lack of success – when he’s not hitting on Deb.
By the second act, things have changed. Bigly.
In a way, Barbecue Apocalypse feels like a companion piece to Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play (which premiered locally in 2015 with Fort Worth’s Stage West). One can imagine Deb, Mike and their friends trying to remember pop-cultural touchstones as a coping mechanism in a world that has gone catty-wampus, to say the least. Yet one of the strengths of Lyle’s play is that he balances the petty grievances the friends carry into the new terrible world of the second act with small signs that desperate times have called forth — at least in Deb and Mike — a new sense of how to cope with the impossible. For one thing, Mike’s gifts as a storyteller finally have value.
The characters’ insecurities and pretensions feel overfamiliar in the first act. But Lyle, who has a new play next season at Dallas' Theatre Three and others in development, has a sharp gift with dialogue. Take for example Mike and Win’s disagreement over Atlas Shrugged. “I’ve never read Ayn Rand,” Mike says. “Neither have I,” replies vulture capitalist Win. “But that doesn’t mean it’s not true.” When Win tells Mike that he has the creative temperament “without the requisite skills,” it’s a rapier thrust that has, perhaps, an element of truth to it.
When the apocalypse happens (it’s in the title, so this is hardly a spoiler), the friendships and rivalries take on new textures. Deb and Mike, the nervous hosts of the first act, are now the center of support for their friends. Lulu and Ash, reduced to living in a library, find renewed joy away from the siren song of smartphones. And Win — well, he’s still Win, but even he finds the strength to do the necessary right thing by the end.
The cast in James’ staging pushes the histrionics a bit harder than they need to. Lower volumes would yield greater comedic results and the deadpan moments tend to be the funniest here. But given how anxiously many of us scan our social media feeds for news of the latest calamity (or at least possible calamity), Lyle’s play feels less like a satire and more like a documentary of things that could happen — just outside our own backyards and our own small circle of annoying friends.