It’s not about hockey, but “Stick Fly” packs plenty of backhand shots, power plays and face-offs.
Still, the title of Lydia R. Diamond’s modestly entertaining Broadway debut about a painfully eye-opening reunion actually refers to how scientists study insects’ flight mechanisms.
Or so says Taylor, a jittery entomologist played by Tracie Thoms.
“Film, even digital, can’t pick up the nuances of a fly in motion,” she declares. “So we glue a fly to a stick. And we film his wing adjustments as we project objects coming at him. Isn’t that crazy?”
Maybe it’s nutty, maybe not.
But as metaphors go, it’s certainly a heavy-handed way to underscore the fight-or-flight reactions of the LeVays, an affluent black family observed during two eventful days of togetherness at their summer home on Martha’s Vineyard.
The weekenders include Joe (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), a brain surgeon, who rides roughshod over all. That’s clear in every interaction with his sons Harold (Mekhi Phifer), a doctor, and Kent (Dulé Hill), a writer — a career dad scorns — as well as with their respective girlfriends, WASP-y Kimber (Rosie Benton), a teacher, and bug-oriented Taylor.
Cheryl (Condola Rashad), the longtime maid’s lippy daughter who’s covering for her sick mom, is also there to stir the pot — in every sense of the term.
Set designer David Gallo has fashioned an art-filled house with great old bones and shiny new stainless appliances. In a canny move, he’s included cutaway walls that suggest the secrets revealed in the play, which was produced by Alicia Keys, who also wrote scene-change music.
Diamond shows a flair for everyday speech as delivered by this bunch of brainiacs. But as she juggles complicated issues of race, class and the devastation of absentee fathers, her play rocks schizophrenically between substantive drama and a quippy “Cosby” clone.
At 2-3/4 hours, “Stick Fly” could benefit from some tightening. Ditto the ensemble directed by Kenny Leon, whose staging of “The Mountaintop” is also running on Broadway.
Rashad (of “Ruined”) is feisty and fine as a young woman facing her past and future. Phifer (“ER”) and Benton (“Saturn Returns”) give consistently smart and appealing performances as interracial lovers.
On the other hand, the talented Thoms, known for “Rent” on stage and film, finishes nearly every sentence with a nervous gulping giggle. It doesn’t fly.
The best thing about “Stick Fly” is its shameless reliance on soap-opera theatrics. Playwright Lydia R. Diamond multiplies heated arguments about race, class and gender, but the comedy that opened last night is really an old-fashioned, corny melodrama.
This is the kind of show where characters yell at each other, then seethe, then make up, then make out. They repeatedly overhear conversations they shouldn’t be overhearing, and are stunned when discovering Big Secrets that were screamingly obvious to the audience.
This being Broadway, there’s a celebrity component: One of the producers is Alicia Keys, who also wrote music for the scene changes.
Also customary is a lavish set — here courtesy of David Gallo — that painstakingly replicates an upper-class interior. In this case, it’s the LeVays’ summer home on Martha’s Vineyard. Historic it is, since their ancestors were “the first blacks to own land anywhere on the Vineyard.”
As befits a sudsy yarn, the introduction of newcomers throws the tightly knit family out of whack.
Older son Flip (Mekhi Phifer) brings his girlfriend Kimber (Rosie Benton) — and she’s white!
Meanwhile, the younger Spoon (Dulé Hill) arrives with Taylor (Tracie Thoms) — who has a boulder-size chip on her shoulder!
Lording it over the youngsters is papa Joe LeVay (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), a neurosurgeon who relishes playing the role of wise elder. Still, Mr. Nice isn’t above putting down Spoon’s writing career — while Flip, a womanizing plastic surgeon, passes muster.
Tyler Perry’s cooked up hits with less, but Diamond has higher aspirations.
Though Taylor and Kimber exchange a few race-based pleasantries, most of the bickering in “Stick Fly” revolves around class and gender. A big issue is privilege, which often goes hand in hand with casual sexism. What happens when the two collide is represented by the young maid, Cheryl (Condola Rashad).
Throughout, Diamond shows that men and women have different expectations and experiences; they don’t even speak the same language.
“I f - - ked the brains out of our girl here in Atlanta six years ago,” Flip boasts, while said girl whines, “I thought we made love.”
Under Kenny Leon’s sluggish direction, the women win the contest, at least in the acting department. Rashad shines in a thankless role, Thoms excels as the petulant Taylor and Benton gives prickly charm to Kimber. Phifer is decent as a cad, but Hill is a hopeless lug, and Santiago-Hudson mistakes blankness for gravitas.
“Stick Fly” tries to explore serious matters, but it’s most effective when reveling in coincidences and pointed one-liners. Think of it as “The Cosby Show” spiced up with intellectual pretensions and profanity.
The daytime soaps are being bug-zapped from the networks one by one, disappearing into oblivion after decades of reliably dishing out startling coincidences and staggering secrets. Where to go for a sustaining dose of torrid, troubled romances and the occasional heated catfight?
Try Broadway. “Stick Fly,” a juicy family drama by Lydia R. Diamond, supplies enough simmering conflict, steamy romance and gasp-worthy revelations to satisfy just about anyone suffering withdrawal symptoms from the merciless soap slaughter that’s taken place over the last couple of years.
And yet this overstuffed but lively comedy-drama, which opened on Thursday night at the Cort Theater, also signifies a departure for Broadway in its depiction of generational conflict and sexual sparks among a well-to-do contemporary African-American family and friends. Pointed discussions of race and class erupt as often as testy personality clashes in Ms. Diamond’s play, set in an imposing manse on Martha’s Vineyard over a few fractious summer days.
The production, unevenly directed by Kenny Leon (also at the helm of “The Mountaintop” this fall), takes some time to find its bearings. The cast’s rhythms are particularly rushed and artificial in the early scenes. As the LeVay family and a couple of significant guests gather, the emotional dynamics are spelled out diagrammatically, while we are fed large spoonfuls of exposition.
First to arrive are Kent (Dulé Hill), the younger son who is soon to be a first-time novelist, and his fiancée, Taylor (Tracie Thoms), an entomologist who has not yet met any of the family and is instantly overawed by the air of casual wealth on display. (The play’s title derives from Taylor’s study of the common housefly, although the metaphor involved doesn’t really get airborne.)
They are soon joined by Kent’s brother, Flip (Mekhi Phifer), a supremely self-assured plastic surgeon who casually lets it be known that his girlfriend, also meeting the LeVay clan for the first time, is “Italian.” Or a little “melanin-challenged,” as Kent sardonically puts it. A startled look of recognition between Flip and Taylor telegraphs the first of many a dramatic revelation to come.
A dense fog of tension really begins rolling ashore when Kimber (Rosie Benton), Flip’s girlfriend, arrives. She is about as Italian as Martha Stewart, for starters, but with her bona fides studying “race dynamics in inner-city schools” and her background of privilege, she fits more smoothly into the grooves of the LeVay family than Taylor does, causing Taylor’s already blossoming insecurities to multiply.
Although Taylor’s father was a celebrated academic whose books about African-American history are displayed on the LeVay shelves, Taylor and her mother struggled after her father abandoned them to start a new family. She grew up in relative poverty with serious daddy issues, and is particularly uneasy in the presence of the 18-year-old Cheryl (Condola Rashad), who is taking over the duties usually performed by her ailing mother, the housekeeper. Cheryl, who is used to being treated as an unofficial family member, is likewise ill at ease in her new role and is about to discover — well, never mind.
Watching over the increasingly prickly relations among the three women is the LeVay patriarch, the neurosurgeon Joe (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), who makes clear his disapproval of Kent’s wayward ways. “So, son,” he intones in a voice of commanding contempt, “you‘re a very talented fiction writer for whom I paid to get a law degree, a business degree and a master’s in sociology.”
The playwright has her hands full just laying out this complicated background — did I mention that Joe gets evasive when the boys start asking where their usually doting mother is? — and the transition from getting-to-know-you chatter to churning conflict is a little abrupt. Taylor’s long story of a breakdown in college leads to a searing attack on Kimber and her presumptions, just the first in a series of heated confrontations over racism in academia (and out of it) and the delicate matter of class.
Ms. Diamond, whose plays have been produced widely at regional theaters, has said in interviews that she set out to write a traditional, “well-made play,” the kind of sturdily constructed drama that was once a staple of the popular theater, exemplified on the higher-brow end of the scale by the works of, say, Lillian Hellman. In its depiction of dark secrets from the past coming home to roost, and neglectful fathers and needy sons, “Stick Fly” is treading well-worn territory, and you can usually spy the next surprise a few beats before it is sprung.
But Ms. Diamond alters the recipe by blending discussions of black American culture into the batter. As a result, “Stick Fly” sometimes feels like a Tyler Perry melodrama (sans Madea), as it might be revised by a professor of African-American studies specializing in the complex signifiers of class in black society. And like the writing, which is often pointed and funny but sometimes sitcommy and slack, the acting ranges from superficial to richly felt.
Ms. Thoms, in the role of the permanently inflamed Taylor, tends to strike her character’s emotional notes head-on, allowing little room for nuance that might make her flare-ups more natural. As Kent, running interference between Taylor and Kimber as he tries to defend himself against his father’s casual slights, Mr. Hill is flat and mechanical.
Mr. Phifer brings a smooth magnetism to the cocky Flip that suits the character as sleekly as the costume designer Reggie Ray’s natty summer attire, while Mr. Santiago-Hudson, a veteran of August Wilson’s plays, gives an intermittently stilted performance as Joe, although he slides out his dismissive asides to fine effect.
The discovery of the evening is the quietly captivating Ms. Rashad, whose work here outshines her touching performance in Lynn Nottage’s “Ruined.” Even when she is hovering at the edges of the drama, passing in and out of the kitchen or refilling wineglasses in the living room, Ms. Rashad’s Cheryl is a powerful presence, sensitive to every hint of condescension directed her way.
The play’s more animated second act reaches a boiling point when Cheryl discovers a secret that suddenly resets her relationship to virtually all the characters onstage. Ms. Rashad finds moving shades of shock, pain and bewilderment in Cheryl’s reaction to this potentially melodramatic development. (She is also expert at delivering the character’s occasionally surly bit of talkback, when her pride is pinched.)
As a young woman from the underclass who lives amid members of a higher one, and has both the opportunity and the potential to make a better life for herself, Cheryl embodies the dynamic tensions that are central to “Stick Fly.” Ms. Rashad’s terrific performance brings a tender, human dimension to themes that are often spelled out in block letters in the writing. We become acutely aware that Cheryl is living the problems that the play’s other characters are able to theorize about from a comfortable distance.
The program note for "Stick Fly" sets Lydia R. Diamond's rich but diffuse drama about a black family on Martha's Vineyard, 2005 -- then adds these important words: "Not Oak Bluffs."
As members of the LeVay family would be quick to point out, the grand Victoriana home (designed by David Gallo) is on the white part of the island -- not Oak Bluffs, where most of the other affluent blacks still spend their summers.
It is a small detail, but a significant one for Diamond's unpredictable characters, educated professionals who, despite their accomplishments, seldom wear their achievements with the casual indifference of belonging. Much of the lengthy exposition -- the homecoming of two sons and their girlfriends, plus a mother mysteriously gone -- is spent establishing everyone's credentials. Soon living room chatter turns into name dropping of intellectual and racial sociology.
For a while, it is hard to know whether Diamond is satirizing the pomposity of these people. Ultimately, I think not. And, as we observe the father and sons' rudeness to the adult daughter of their ailing housekeeper, we question whether we can care about their issues at all. This is a tougher call.
What is stimulating here is not the familiar plot, with its requisite family secrets and its melodramatic outbursts, or first-time producer Alicia Keys' extraneous incidental music.
Rather, the draw is the characters, especially these fascinating women, who become increasingly provocative and complex as relationships unwind.
Also, Kenny Leon directs six fine actors -- including the superb Condola Rashad as the quietly seething maid's daughter with ambitions, Dulé Hill as the son who'd rather be a novelist than a lawyer, Mekhi Phifer as his brother the womanizing plastic surgeon and Ruben Santiago-Hudson as the patriarch, a neurosurgeon, whose ordinary-dad criticisms mask real menace.
Tracie Thoms and Rosie Benton reveal layers of flinty contradictions as the sons' girlfriends, one black and one white, both with plenty to say about life we haven't heard before.
There's a tight, bright, nasty 90-minute play lurking in this sprawling 2¾-hour work, named after an etymological practice of gluing fast-moving flies on sticks to be magnified. Stuck under a less-than-perfect microscope, they still move.
A comedy of the dysfunctional-family variety, "Stick Fly" offers a fair share of laughter and some enjoyable performances but not much in the way of distinction. While playwright Lydia R. Diamond mixes in intrigue, sex and sociology, the proceedings are rarely surprising and never compelling; the result suggests a second cousin of August Wilson married to Jean Kerr's stepchild. There is an audience for this piece, as at least five other productions across the country have made clear, but without ticket-selling stars, it's unclear whether they'll be able to attract a crowd to the Cort Theater.
The author sets out a typical template. An upper-class family arrives for a long weekend at their country house in Martha's Vineyard, the grown sons bringing along new girlfriends. The family is black; the girl one of the sons brings home is white. There are two key characters present solely via telephone, and the family's foundations are exploded by one of those second-act secrets that are telegraphed midway through the first.
With "Stick Fly," Diamond has attempted a commercial comedy with soapy overtones, but despite the abundance of laugh lines, the first act bogs down with cultural anthropology talk while the second meanders through five scenes. Director Kenny Leon ("Fences"), who successfully staged "Stick Fly" at the Arena Stage in Washington last year, has recast all but one of the roles, but what this play cries out for is a rewrite.
David Gallo's Vineyard cottage is the sort of place we'd like to move into immediately, with partial walls defining three distinct playing areas that can be used simultaneously. Pop music powerhouse Alicia Keys -- the second-billed producer -- has composed scene-change music that unfortunately slows down the proceedings.
Ruben Santiago-Hudson ("Seven Guitars"), the one stage veteran in the group, dominates the action with a comical turn as the controlling patriarch of the clan. Tracie Thoms and Rosie Benton contribute detailed portraits of the very different girlfriends; the sons, top-billed Dule Hill and Mekhi Phifer, are given less to work with. Stealing attention is Condola Rashad, who gave a memorable performance as an abused victim in Lynn Nottage's "Ruined," and who proves a strong comedienne here.
The title comes from the play's resident entomologist; in order to study the wing movements of houseflies, you glue them to Popsicle sticks and watch them squirm. That's what the playwright does to her characters in "Stick Fly."