Richard Pryor Play 'Unspeakable' Gets Mixed Reviews

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Richard Pryor play Unspeakable is playing in Chicago at the Broadway Playhouse. It runs until October 25.

Broadway in Chicago describes the play:

Sex, Drugs and Comedy. Unspeakable is an unflinching ride through the emotional landscape of Richard Pryor spanning sixty-one years and focused on the period between 1967 and 1982. Born and raised in a Peoria brothel owned and operated by his grandmother, Pryor faced situations that forever shaped and scarred his sensitive soul. With a pimp for a father and his mother a whore, young Pryor’s imagination allowed him to escape and ultimately led him to comedy. Unspeakable captures the energy of a man battling success and the demons it invites.

Critics don't seem very impressed with the production. critic Philip Potempa writes:

"Unspeakable" is supposed to capture the energy of the man who battled success and the demons prior to his death from a heart attack at age 65 in 2005. He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1986.

But instead, what's served up to audiences is a two-hour, one-intermission rant of anger, confusion and snippets of brief ups, but mainly downs, which never seem to connect to a bigger story of balanced success and failures. It is also laden with profanity, drug references, sexual situations and violence, so much so, I felt numb and disinterested by the final concluding moments. The production is recommended for "audiences 16 years of age and older."

Hedy Weiss at The Chicago Sun-Times writes:

Here is the crucial problem with “Unspeakable,” the fantasia inspired by the life of Richard Pryor that began at a New York Fringe Festival and is now on stage at the Broadway Playhouse: While the show revels in all the pathology (and then some) of the man who catapulted black comedy and social commentary to a whole new level in the late 1960s and ’70s, it fails to suggest his comic genius.

So what we end up with in this play, which has been co-written by actor James Murray Jackson Jr. and his director, Rod Gailes OBC, is more than two hours of profanity, depravity and rampant misogyny — not all of it coherent, and much of it repetitive — without any suggestion of how Pryor was able to make his audiences, both black and white, complicit in his uncensored assessment of race in this country. Nor do we get any convincing sense of how he was able to make his audiences laugh at the very brazen nature of his truth-telling.

Scott Morgan at Daily Herald says:

One of the big problems -- and there are many -- has to do with what "Unspeakable" could, and could not, use. Since the play wasn't authorized by the Pryor estate, the writers were unable to draw on the comedian's copious material, except in name-dropping passing, thus robbing "Unspeakable" of authenticity.

Another troubling aspect is the character known as "The Rat," gamely played by Taryn Reneau in a patterned body stocking and sunglasses with large X-marks across the lenses. The visual of a dead rat is first mentioned as Pryor describes being raped as a young child. The Rat pops up at regular intervals to goad Pryor on to make dangerous choices (not unlike the "Bad Idea Bears" in "Avenue Q"), but you're still left wondering why.

Not everyone has been left unimpressed with the production. Candace at Social in CHI City calls it a "must see".