Watching them, you'd never question why Tyler Perry and his plays have become cultural phenomenons. After all, audiences eat up every Jesus jonesing word of their demographically corrent comedy. They laugh uproariously at every joke (no matter how cutting or corny) and they openly and loudly respond to each proto preaching pronouncement. These theatrical works are less like dramas and more like tent revivals, what with the concentration on salvation and singing vs. tight characterization and narrative depth. What's Done in the Dark... is the latest Perry direct to video DVD. It does not feature his signature creation Madea Simmons (the playwright's infamous drag act) but does offer up the equally popular David and Tamela Mann as the sidesplitting sidekicks the Browns (Leroy and daughter Cora). The material may be the same, recycled from the rest of his Christian canon, but that doesn't make it less effective - or fun.
When Leroy Brown faints at the airport, his daughter Cora Simmons rushes him to the county hospital. There he meets the single Dr. Harris, who can't quite figure out what is wrong with the man. The rest of the staff have their own issues to deal with as well. Trudy is desperate for a hook up with Harris, but doesn't know how to approach him. Kerry is having a fling with administrator Dr. Bowman. He is hiding a massive secret that will threaten their entire relationship. Newest employee Brenda is having a hard time making ends meet. The situation causes her NBA bound son to take some drastic steps. And a man seeking treatment for an STD learns that his wife may have been unfaithful to him. All the while, hidden issues keep bubbling to the surface. As the old saying goes, What's Done in the Dark...will always come to the light.
It's an interesting study in styles. For the most part, Tyler Perry has built his name, his reputation, and his vast Oprah like empire on the back of a pot smoking, gun toting, foul mouthed old biddy named Madea. Like a complex combination of vaudeville act and Benny Hill, the statuesque African American man has relied on the ridiculous sight of his body accented by fake boobs and a wig to draw audiences to what are otherwise standard church cautionary tales. It's not the most original approach - musical and great Gospel singing has been a built-in draw to these melodramatic works for decades. But Perry is the first one to discover that modern urban audiences love to laugh. His Madea is a stand-up comic without an observational premise. She's the running gag, the go-to grandstander. Whenever a show gets slow, the fast-talking battleaxe will draw on current pop culture (rappers, actors), community stereotypes, and The Color Purple for his/her inspiration. The results keep butts in the seats and rolling in the aisle.
So the question becomes - how does a Tyler Perry play work without the iconic quadruple threat (producer/writer/actor/composer) in the lead? The answer is, very well thank you, especially if David Mann as Leroy Brown is taking point. A longtime member of the Perry company, his bald, bulky, bumbling old man has frequently been the yin to Madea's more arch yang, a malapropism prone tool to take the audiences back to the good old days of stumblebum humor. Along with his exceptionally talented wife Cora, the duo provides a goofball/gracious backdrop to much of their mentor's material. It comes as no surprise that Mann will make his big screen debut in the latest adaptation of a Perry play - Meet the Browns. But it will be interesting to see how moviegoers accept the character. He's such a stage stalwart that the over the top shtick might come off shrill blown up to 35mm.
None of this addresses What's Done in the Dark..., and frankly, the play doesn't care. It's nothing new in the overall Perry lexicon, with a couple of clear exceptions. First, Mann is not the star. He's a supporting player to the three main nurse characters. Second, there are songs. Anyone exclusively familiar with the man's movie work may be shocked to learn that music plays a crucial role in these productions. The lyrics always offer a 'Go with God' mantra, and the performances are usually the standout segments of the show. Finally, Mann is not left to do all the heavy comic lifting himself. Certainly there are scenes in which the Leroy Brown character goes ballistic, stealing each and every line from his fellow actors. But D'Atra Hicks' Nurse Trudy is an equal showoff, endless mugging and turning every line into a guttural, Eartha Kitt come-on. In the end, the entertainment value remains, Perry getting his points across in obvious if endearing ways. What's Done in the Dark... proves that, no matter the format, this man knows his material, and what makes audiences happy.
Even though this is a videotaped performance, the 1.33:1 full-frame image is sharp and clear. Obviously helmed by professionals who understand camera angles, framing, and composition, the transfer treats us, the home theater crowd, to a view the live audience could only have hoped for. Since this is a newer show in Perry's oeuvre, there's very little tendency toward analog issues like bleeding, flaring, and ghosting. As a memento of some stellar stage work, this filmed play is excellent.
Equally important is the translation of the music and, it has to be said, it is near perfect. The Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 Stereo mixes soar with Gospel greatness. While the songs do have their limits (no one claimed Perry was the Smokey Robinson of spirituals), the performers deliver them with so much bravado that you forgive their failings. Of course, the one main issue that almost all of Perry's filmed plays have is a lack of audience participation. Whoever handled the editing of this material minimizes the post-song applause and responses, always fading out just as the final note is played. These performers are exceptional and really earn their praise. We listeners at home should be able to hear it as well.
Without Perry's direct participation in the production (he does step from behind the scenes at the end to thank the audience for coming), it is left to Mann to handle the added content. The first featurette finds the actor in Mr. Brown mode hitting a local thrift shop for his standard outlandish wardrobe. Bad jumpsuits, mismatched shirt/pant combos, and any other fashion disaster he can get his hands on becomes fodder for some funny business. Next, Mann continues the clueless clown act to offer some interviews and introductions with the cast. It's a fun little romp. Aside from trailers for other Perry offerings, that's all the bonus material present. While not plentiful, these clips are a great deal of fun.
Easily earning a Recommended rating, What's Done in the Dark... is your standard Tyler Perry play. It offers recognizable character types overcoming real world obstacles in a manner that teaches life lessons while tugging at both the funny bone and the heartstrings. Some may find it all too simple, while others will wonder how a man so close to his community can continue to foster stereotypes and racially insensitive stances. But one thing Perry knows, it's his audience. If you don't "get it", don't worry: you're probably not expected to. While no one ever went broke underestimating the idiocy of the public, the same could be said for pandering to a particularly underserved part of the social fabric. For a long time, the African American experience in America was reduced down to servants, drug dealers, criminals, and any combination of the three. Tyler Perry has broken out of that mold to manufacture semi-realistic views of his heritage. The success of something like What's Done in the Dark... indicates he's doing something right. And his fans couldn't agree more.
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