Black Bourgie Blues

With Blue, playwright Charles Randolph-Wright set out to tell a story about African-Americans that isn't about race relations; a black family drama that's not about oppression but about good old American dysfunction. Randolph-Wright succeeded -- not wisely, but too well. Blue is a ceaselessly pleasant shaggy dog story dotted with interesting characters and agreeable music and -- in its Arizona Theatre Company production -- spilling over with fine performances. What it is not is particularly memorable, or groundbreaking, or anything other than a satisfying diversion.

Imagine an episode of The Jeffersons written by Patrick Dennis, and you'll know the Clarks: Matriarch Peggy is an Afro-American Auntie Mame, forever at odds with her teenaged son and her tartly disapproving mother-in-law. Husband Samuel's chain of successful funeral homes keeps her in fur coats, and the music of her idol, fictional blues legend Blue Williams, keeps her from losing her mind in mundane suburban South Carolina. When she's really bored, Peggy takes on a "project," and during the time we're with her, it's a makeover of local hick LaTonya Dinkins. When LaTonya runs off with Blue, Peggy comes unglued and -- almost halfway through this longish dramedy -- things start to get interesting.

Tony winner Leslie Uggams' attractive performance as Peggy helps keep this trifle from falling flat. She turns what seems like hours of exposition into a lot of entertaining backstory, and her considerable charms help transform a vainglorious, manipulative woman into someone we can actually care about once we discover her true nature. Most of the supporting cast members repeat their roles from a recent Pasadena Playhouse production, notably Chris Butler as the older son and Felicia Wilson as backwoods LaTonya, and their fluency with the script helps move the often-predictable story along.

Randolph-Wright's mundane framing device aside, the real trouble with this play is its ever-shifting perspective. Rueben appears as both a boy and a man, and the two versions occasionally speak to one another, although no other character is aware they're both "there." Older Rueben speaks to us, mainly because this is a memory play, and Blue himself, another character who isn't actually present, interacts with nearly everyone on stage -- something we see and they don't.

Another gimmick works when it probably shouldn't: Whenever Peggy listens to one of Blue's old albums, the man himself appears on stage and sings directly to her. If this conceit isn't tiresome or dopey, it's because Dennis Rowland, as Blue Williams, is doing the singing. Reaching into his upper register, Rowland makes the Nona Hendryx score sound like a stack of standards.

Debra Bauer's costume designs strike the right balance between garish '70s kitsch and high fashion, and tell us more about the Clarks than a lot of the dialogue does. Sheldon Epps' first-rate direction can't overcome the talky script or the messy sightlines that, on opening night, afforded me a distracting view of the backstage technical staff.

Ultimately, it's Randolph-Wright's histrionic huzzah late in the second act that sinks his story. By the time the Clarks' secrets are revealed, most of us have already guessed at them, and what we're left with is a handful of laughs after an evening spent with some vaguely interesting people. Blue is less enlightening entertainment than a slightly naughty Cosby episode about adultery, an agreeable evening of theater with little dazzle.