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NEW YORK – The commercial success of recent Tony-winning revivals of Fences and A Raisin in the Sun made it clear there’s a well-heeled African American audience largely under-served by the standard Broadway menu. So it seems a savvy move to enlist Kenny Leon, director of those earlier productions, to stage a comedy-drama that wrestles with the problems of an Upper Middle Class black family. It’s just too bad that the play, Lydia R. Diamond’s Stick Fly, is such scattershot entertainment.
Produced at regional theaters but unseen in New York, Stick Fly is the theatrical answer to that wave of upscale black screen representations that span from Waiting to Exhale through films like Brown Sugar and Something New to the non-Madea Tyler Perry entries. It digs a little deeper into issues of race, class and gender politics in black relationships. But at heart this is a sitcom-soap hybrid that often serves to show how wealthy dysfunctional African American families can be every bit as tiresome and self-involved as their white counterparts. It says something about the playwright’s sympathies that the most warmly drawn character is the maid’s daughter, and the play becomes most compelling when she’s centerstage.
Setting is the LeVays’ grand old house on Martha’s Vineyard. Via an ancestor in shipping who saved the Mayor’s son from a boating accident, they became the first black family to own real estate on the island and remain one of the few non-white clans not clustered in the less-pedigreed Oak Bluffs section.
Brothers Flip (Mekhi Phifer) and Kent (Dulé Hill) have independently chosen the same weekend to introduce their partners to the family. Cocky plastic surgeon Flip (“I do tits and faces”) is prepared for sparks given that his girlfriend Kimber (Rosie Benton) is pure WASP, albeit with sensitivity about the socioeconomic divide. Kent is the underachiever. Up to now a directionless perpetual student, he has had his first novel accepted for publication, thanks in part to the emotional support of Taylor (Tracie Thoms).
The daughter of a now deceased distinguished black intellectual who moved on to a second family and left her behind with her mother, Taylor has had some doors opened to her. But not enough to keep a giant chip from settling on her shoulder. An entomologist — which accounts for the undercooked metaphor of the play’s title — she’s unaccustomed to the LeVays’ level of affluence.
Much of the early friction comes from sibling rivalry, a clash between the girlfriends, and from Kent chafing at the lack of respect from his father, Joe (Ruben Santiago-Hudson). A neurosurgeon who turns on the charm offensive for the ladies, he is arrogant indifference personified. It’s clear from Mom’s conspicuous absence that something is askew. But unlike most of the audience, none of the characters see trouble coming in the form of 18-year-old Cheryl (Condola Rashad), who has been sent to cover for her ailing mother, the family’s longtime maid.
Whether she’s juggling domestic tasks while receiving alarming updates about her mother’s health or being handed a bombshell concerning her parentage, Rashad’s Cheryl has a realness in short supply elsewhere. The daughter of Phylicia Rashad, the actor’s only significant previous New York stage experience was in the Pulitzer winner Ruined. But she commands attention with grace, humor and naturalness compared to the effortful work of the more seasoned cast members. She quietly hits every droll note of resentful attitude beneath the polite execution of her duties, and taps into a deep emotional well when the family secret tumbles out.
Benton is also sharp and funny. Thoms has affecting moments, but is too busy indicating everything in a self-consciously physical performance that becomes exhausting to watch. While Hill (The West Wing) has plenty of stage credits on his résumé, his work, along with that of Thoms and Phifer, veers frequently into television mode, as if playing to a studio audience and pausing for a laugh track. And Santiago-Hudson can’t do much with his unsympathetic character.
As over-written as it is, Diamond’s script has enough amusing lines and perceptive observations — particularly about the behavior men learn or reject from their fathers — to keep it engaging. But her characters don’t exactly draw you in, and neither these actors nor the staging help.
Notes in the published text specify: “The décor is tasteful, casual, comfortable and extraordinarily expensive in its utter lack of pretension.” David Gallo’s set instead suggests fusty ostentation. Aside from the visual disharmony between the beachy kitchen and patio and the heavy mahogany foyer and living area, the jagged cutaway that keeps both main playing spaces in view is just plain ugly. The clunky scenes of simultaneous dialogue in two rooms notwithstanding, the play might possibly have worked better with its three main environments on a turntable set.
Leon’s direction lacks the nimble touch to modulate smoothly from bantering through bickering to the charged confrontations of the final scenes. And in a play that runs an attenuated two hours 40 minutes, producer Alicia Keys’ transitional music is used too liberally, more often calling attention to itself than serving the dramatic tone.
Venue: Cort Theatre, New York (runs indefinitely)
Cast: Dulé Hill, Mekhi Phifer, Tracie Thoms, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Rosie Benton, Condola Rashad
Director: Kenny Leon
Playwright: Lydia R. Diamond
Set designer: David Gallo
Costume designer: Reggie Ray
Lighting designer: Beverly Emmons
Sound designer: Peter Fitzgerald
Music: Alicia Keys
Presented by Nelle Nugent, Alicia Keys, Samuel Nappi, Reuben Cannon, Jay H. Harris/Catherine Schreiber, Huntington Theatre Company, Dan Frishwasser, Charles Salameno, Sharon A. Carr/Patricia Klausner/Rick Danzansky, Daveed D. Frazier/Mark Thompson, in association with Joseph Sirola, Cato and Nicole June/Matthew and Shawna Watley, Eric Falkenstein, Kenneth Teaton
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