It’s best not to get too comfortable at any given moment when you’re watching a play by Robert O’Hara.
As anyone who saw O’Hara’s “Bootycandy’’ last year at SpeakEasy Stage Company can attest, this is a dramatist who likes to take audiences in unexpected directions, often after executing a hairpin turn, and who frequently veers toward caricature.
“Bootycandy’’ director Summer L. Williams is now at the helm of a twisty, uproarious production of O’Hara’s “Barbecue’’ at Lyric Stage Company of Boston. It’s a corrosively comic examination of the culture of addiction as exemplified by two families, one white, one black. Both are battling roughly similar levels of substance abuse, and both possess similarly combative personalities. Their exchanges are raw, ferocious, and often funny, though some tightening would benefit “Barbecue.’’
Being staged at a time when the opioid epidemic is front-page news, “Barbecue’’ toys with expectations and assumptions — about race, drugs, identity, recovery narratives, the traditional contours of the family drama, even the events unfolding before your eyes — before upending them. All is not as it seems in “Barbecue,’’ in either the narrow or broad sense.
That requires a reviewer to proceed with caution when giving a taste of the plot. So here goes, treading carefully, while pausing to note the astuteness with which Williams has chosen her 10-member cast, which features some of the most distinctive performers in Boston, all in fine form here.
The white family is seen first, at a pavilion in a public park, preparing to conduct an intervention with their crack-addicted, alcoholic, psychologically troubled sister, whom the other family members called Zippity Boom and is played by Deb Martin. Gathered at a picnic table are a brother portrayed by Bryan T. Donovan, swilling beer from a can and occasionally scratching his scrotum, and three sisters, played by Adrianne Krstansky, Christine Power, and Sarah Elizabeth Bedard.
The black family is also readying for an intervention of a sibling with substance abuse issues, played by Ramona Lisa Alexander. Its members are portrayed by James R. Milord (his character, who apparently defines tough love very broadly, has brought along a Taser), Jasmine Rush, Lyndsay Allyn Cox, and Jackie Davis. The siblings are poised to pull out all the stops in their insistence that their sister agree to enter a rehab facility in Alaska called Halcyon Dreams. Indeed, before their confrontation is over, that sister will be bound to a pillar, her mouth duct-taped. Extreme? Yep, though perhaps one family member offers a partial explanation when she says to her siblings: “We have already lost one brother and one sister to this (expletive) and I’ll be damned if I’m gonna sit up here and lose another one. I ain’t gonna sit back anymore and just let this keep going on and on like it’s the normal way of the (expletive) world . . . We like to act like it’s just a (expletive) TV show. It ain’t!’’
Starting at the end of Act 1 and extending through Act 2, matters take a starkly different turn, the tone of “Barbecue’’ changes, and some of the raucous energy, frankly, goes out of the play. But the new wrinkle O’Hara introduces has its own intriguing dimensions that build upon the strengths of “Barbecue,’’ particularly the way it both traverses and blurs the line between reality and illusion while slyly questioning our culture’s suppositions about drug use.
Before Sunday’s performance came a hearteningly familiar sight: Lyric Stage producing artistic director Spiro Veloudos walked onstage and delivered his usual pre-show speech — except there was nothing usual about it.
This time, Veloudos was walking on a prosthetic limb. On Dec. 10, as he was preparing to give a pre-show speech before a performance of “Murder for Two,’’ Veloudos passed out and had to be rushed to a hospital. He was found to be suffering from a life-threatening infection in his left leg, caused by Type 2 diabetes, that required amputation below the knee. During his laborious recovery, marked by an outpouring of support from the theater community, Veloudos set himself a goal: To walk into a celebration of his 20th anniversary at the Lyric that is scheduled for later this month.
“Two weeks ahead of schedule,’’ Veloudos said proudly as he ended his walk by sitting in a wheelchair onstage Sunday. “Two weeks early.’’ He proceeded to give the brief and jocular speech he always gives, word for word. Veloudos was nattily attired in a gray suit and plum-colored shirt with matching tie. When I saw him at intermission, he told me that it was the suit he was wearing the day he collapsed and his life changed. He has devoted a big chunk of that life to making Lyric Stage a place where challenging works like “Barbecue’’ can find a home.
In the process, he’s built a bond with his theater’s audience that may be second to none among artistic directors in the city. On Sunday, just before Veloudos began his remarks, a spectator cried out: “Welcome back!’’ Amen to that.
Play by Robert O’Hara. Directed by Summer L. Williams. Presented by Lyric Stage Company of Boston. Through May 7. Tickets: Starting at $25, 617-585-5678, www.lyricstage.comDon Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com.