top of page

Review: You Can Pick Your Friends, But...

“Fat Ham,” Geffen Playhouse, April 4 – May 5, 2024


April 10, 2024 | By Bruce R. Feldman


In Brief: A wild and crazy mashup of Hamlet and black TV sitcoms of an earlier generation. The play overflows with humanity, theatricality, and exceptional performances. It’s moving and hilarious at the same time, plus, there are a few nifty illusions and a knock-out musical number. What’s not to like!

 

Marcel Spears and Chris Herbie Holland in "Fat Ham" at Geffen Playhouse. (Photo: Jeff Lorch)

Marcel Spears and Chris Herbie Holland in "Fat Ham" at Geffen Playhouse. (Photo: Jeff Lorch)


Playwright James Ijames has done the seemingly impossible. He’s borrowed familiar themes and plot points from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, blended them with the tetchy characters, sharp social commentary, and goofy hijinks of 1970s TV sitcoms like Good Times or The Jeffersons, and constructed a provocative, exhilarating comedy-drama about families, loss, disappointment, and sexual identity.

 

It's hard to explain exactly what makes this conceptually risky play work, but it does. Fat Ham is a highlight of the current theatrical season.

 

As Juicy (Marcel Spears) mourns the recent death of his sadistic father, his adaptable mom (Nikki Crawford) is shacking up with the old man’s self-serving brother (Billy Eugene Jones), and dad’s ghost has come back to implore him to kill the unscrupulous brother. Should Juicy do it or not? That’s the Old Globe part.

 


L-R: Nikki Crawford, Billy Eugene Jones, Matthew Elijah Webb, Benja Kay Thomas, Adrianna Mitchell and Marcel Spears in "Fat Ham." (Photo: Jeff Lorch)


This dilemma takes place on a summer afternoon in the backyard of momma’s suburban North Carolina home where the extended family – Aunt Rabby and cousins Tio, Larry, and Opal – gathers for a BBQ. This is the George Jefferson part.

 

As the party stretches into evening, some of the characters enjoy moments of grace or self-awareness, and everyone is shocked and amused at the family secrets that are revealed. (Theatregoers of a certain age might appreciate this as a Morning’s at Seven for our perplexing times.)

 

Ijames won a Pulitzer Prize for the piece, which was a big hit for the New York Public Theater in 2022. The Geffen production features most of the superb original cast, starting with Spears who is the endearing glue that holds everything together. Crawford gives a larger-than-life performance as his raunchy, amoral mom. Jones is unnerving as the shady stepfather.

 


Adrianna Mitchell and Benja Kay Thomas in "Fat Ham."" (Photo: Jeff Lorch)


The supporting cast members are equally impressive, especially Adrianna Mitchell as bad-tempered cousin Opal and Benja Kay Thomas as her voluble mother Rabby.

 

Set design and all production credits are first rate, as is The Geffen’s custom. Bradley King’s expressionistic lighting, in particular, contributes mightily to the show’s overall effectiveness.


Finally, credit Sideeq Heard’s robust direction, based on Saleem Ali’s original, for keeping everything flowing at a fast clip right up to the glorious, uproarious, and utterly entertaining climax.


“Fat Ham,” Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90024, geffenplayhouse.org, (310)-208-2028

Comments


bottom of page