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'Bootycandy' review: Uneven mix of sketches about being gay, black

Robert O'Hara directs

Robert O'Hara directs "Bootycandy,"a series of sketches about coming-of-age as a black and gay man, starring Jesse Pennington, left, and Phillip James Brannon, at Playwrights Horizons in Manhattan. Credit: Joan Marcus

The Web description of Robert O'Hara's "Bootycandy" promises a "kaleidoscope of sketches that interconnect to portray growing up gay and black." That's mostly true, so long as you don't look too hard for the sketches to interconnect.

More accurately, this is a grab-bag of comic scenes, some more satirical than others, all directed by the playwright with an original eye for design and a gleeful spin on black caricatures. At its best, which is very good, indeed, the evening suggests the subversive, take-no-prisoners wit of George C. Wolfe's 1986 breakthrough play, "The Colored Museum." Other times, we're in mainstream Tyler Perry territory, except with gay sex and dirty talk.

The one reliable constant is Phillip James Brannon as Sutter, whom we see in the first childish scene as an obviously gay kid asking questions, including why his mother and granny refer to his privates as bootycandy. Since Sutter grows up to be far more sophisticated about his sexuality than the word implies, we're never really sure why O'Hara chose this for his title.

Four other actors morph virtuosically into so many contrasting characters that we're surprised when so few people come out for the bow. Lance Coadie Williams is especially compelling, first as a reverend who turns his sermon about gossip into a self-revelation -- both powerful and funny -- that finds the unexpected twists in the incantations of familiar preacher rhythms.

A series of scenes titled "Drinks and Desire" is so nuanced and focused that we wish there were more of these and fewer hysterical-women cliches. Here, two men (Brannon and Jesse Pennington) meet over time to stand at a high table at an upscale bar and explore increasingly unpredictable seductions.

In a cleverly staged but less enlightening telephone scene, two women -- Jessica Frances Dukes and Benja Kay Thomas -- portray four stereotypes of black women by each wearing two costumes, one on each side, like flip-over puppets. The increasingly tiresome joke is a friend's decision to name her baby girl Genitalia. Years later, we attend the "noncommitment ceremony" at the breakup of Genitalia and her partner, Intifada. We know not why.

But a panel about black playwrights is devastating in its depiction of white-theater naivete. And the only frontal nudity involves the only white actor (Pennington), which just may be the slyest joke of them all.

WHAT "Bootycandy"

WHERE Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St., Manhattan

INFO $75; 212-279-4200; playwrightshorizons.org

BOTTOM LINE Uneven mix of sketches about being gay and black.

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