Matt Lyle has found the recipe for the perfect summer blockbuster: take one part breezy comedy, two parts social commentary, and add zombies until well done.
And well done is exactly what Barbecue Apocalypse is. The former (and soon-to-be-again) Dallas playwright has concocted a script that zings with relatable dialogue amid a fantastical situation, and director Lee Trull coaxes performances from his cast that are both stereotypically hilarious and touchingly insightful.
But back to those zombies. The first act introduces Deb (a delightful Martha Harms) and Mike (a humorously nebbish Michael Federico), a couple whose happy marriage is put to the test by the grown-up act of throwing a successful barbecue. Deb worries that their shabby house, mismatched patio furniture, and half-mowed lawn will telegraph to the guests their general ineptitude at adulthood. Mike mainly worries about his mammoth new grill exploding.
On the guest list are Win (played with bro-tastic sleaze by Max Hartman) and his new blonde bombshell girlfriend, Glory (a leggy Miranda Parham), who’s late to the shindig because she was auditioning for the Rockettes (of course). Ash and Lulu, the hip foodie wannabes, are also invited, and Jeff Swearingen (wearing the hell out of Samantha Rios’ comically tight pants) and Leah Spillman play their annoyingly smug characters to the hilt.
It could have been enough for Lyle to set the entire play at this awkward, weird, and painfully honest barbecue; he still would have ended up with an engaging lark that’s sitcom-funny. But then he decides to end the world.
Returning from intermission, the audience discovers that Michael B. Raiford’s pleasant backyard set has morphed into the neighborhood stronghold, with the movie posters Deb formerly complained about adorning their walls now papering the sliding glass door and a torn-out car seat reigning as the fanciest chair on the deck.
By cleverly mirroring moments from the first act and expanding upon the characters’ insecurities and hinted-at strengths, Lyle creates a parallel world where Deb and Mike are now the couple to be admired. “Do I look like Sophia Loren or Fred from ‘Scooby Doo?’,” a wardrobe-insecure Deb anxiously quizzed Mike pre-apocalypse. Fast-forward to the end of the world, when “Did you eat your girlfriend?” is a question that trumps sartorial worries. Now, who cares about being featured on Apartment Therapy when you’ve built your own potato vodka still and can capture a raccoon for dinner?
The surprising script does take one detour at the finale, when the perfect moment to bring down the lights comes and goes and the play shuffles on for another five minutes or so, ending on more of a whimper than a bang. But like the slightly questionable JELL-O mold that someone always seems to bring, it’s easy to overlook when the rest of the spread is so satisfying.