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Backing Track, a charming comedy receiving its world premiere at the Arden Theatre, functions like a thoughtfully constructed mixtape. Playwright R. Eric Thomas sews together disparate scenes, incongruous personalities, and plenty of music to craft a rich portrait of a multigenerational Black queer family. To paraphrase one character: it shouldn’t work, but it does.
That would be Avery (Brenson Thomas), a rudderless entertainer entering the tail end of his “mid-to-late early thirties.” He makes his living hosting karaoke night on a cruise ship—or “cabar-oke,” as he calls it—but he starts to feel the pull of dry land at the insistence of his widowed mother, Mel (Melanye Finister). His pregnant sister Jessica (Danielle Leneé) has already decamped for Canada with her Vancouver-born husband (Joseph Ahmed, endearingly goofy) in the wake of Trump’s election, and Mel wants Avery to put down solid roots in the neighborhood the family has called home for decades.
Continuity and change
Thomas sets the play in 2018, which feels like an almost quaint foreign country after the past two years of pandemic turmoil. But, although he takes a light touch with his material, his winning script still considers emotional disruption, unwanted change, and feelings of deep uncertainty on both the personal and the community level.
Mel and her wife, Miriam, are presented as pioneers of their community, buying early and creating something akin to a lesbian urban utopia. Thomas doesn’t specifically define the setting—and Chris Haig’s handsome scenic design could pass for any number of historic homes—but it could easily be Philly, where the playwright lived for many years, or his hometown of Baltimore, where he currently resides. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to imagine strains of NIMBYism in either city, represented here by neighborhood association stalwarts Esther (Bi Jean Ngo) and Abraham (Carl Hsu).
The humorous but tense interactions between Mel and Esther communicate a clash between old and new, continuity and change, and the misunderstandings that can arise when people lack a sense of shared history. They also speak to something deeper. Esther takes issue with Mel putting a car on blocks in her front yard, not realizing that it was Miriam’s beloved ride. In turn, Mel is surprised to learn that Miriam became a devoted member of the neighborhood committee prior to her death.
In between these moments, Avery expresses his inner monologue through karaoke, belting Heart and Celine Dion to give voice to his frustration and doubt. Stepping up to a microphone under Natalie Robin’s atmospherically hazy lighting, he belts the power ballads and wonders about the direction his life has taken. He also periodically receives Grindr messages from a potential suitor who might be a bigger presence in his life than he initially seems.
Thomas can write a joke, as anyone who followed his long-running humor column Eric Reads the News should already know. And there’s plenty to laugh at here: a recurring riff on the title of Dion’s magnum opus “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” had me in stitches every time. Director Rebecca Wright smartly knows to give the one-liners plenty of breathing room.
Even more impressive, though, is Thomas’s ability to distill a powerful emotional journey into a compact, moving exchange. He shows this when Mel describes for Avery the simple beauty of the sun catching Miriam’s silhouette as she picked her up from work—or in Abraham’s remembrances of teenage queer self-consciousness, set to the nostalgic minor-key strains of R.E.M.’s “Nightswimming.” Thomas understands the value of a well-judged dramatic moment to interrupt the jollity. He doesn’t push them, just as he doesn’t oversell his comedy.
Play it again
Nor do the actors. Finister, never better, balances Mel’s grit and grief with convincing clarity. Thomas communicates the tenderness he feels toward his mother and the fear that he’ll end up trapped in a life he doesn’t want. Leneé persuasively conveys the conflict of a woman who sometimes seems like a secondary character in her own life. Together, they create an organic, believable family unit.
At nearly two-and-a-half hours, Backing Track would benefit from some judicious editing, especially in the somewhat draggy second act. And Ngo and Hsu, whose characters are more overtly comic relief, could balance their performances with a touch more naturalism. But in total, Thomas’s warm, witty family story jumps off the stage and into your heart. It’s like a mixtape you want to keep playing over and over.
What, When, Where
Backing Track. By R. Eric Thomas, directed by Rebecca Wright. $18-$53. Presented by Arden Theatre Company. Through April 10, 2022, at the Arcadia Stage, 40 N. 2nd Street, Philadelphia. (215) 922-1122 or ardentheatre.org.
The Arden Theatre requires all patrons to show proof of Covid-19 vaccination to attend a live performance. Masks must be worn inside the building at all times. Seating is not distanced.
The Arden Theatre is an ADA-compliant venue. Open-captioned and audio-described performances will be held on Friday, March 25, at 8pm and Saturday, March 26, at 2pm. Assistive listening devices are always available. For more information, or to purchase accessible seating in advance, call (215) 922-1122 or email [email protected].
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