Stick Fly Review: To Be Young, Gilded And Black
“There isn’t a single one of you that hasn’t kept secrets or made mistakes,” Dr. LeVay says defensively to his family in “Stick Fly,” a play full of mistakes aired and secrets revealed among an affluent African-American family.
The play itself is far from a secret, except in New York. A proven crowd-pleaser, “Stick Fly” has been given nearly a dozen full productions in regional theaters throughout the country over the last half dozen years, just one of the ten widely-produced plays of Lydia Diamond, 42, who is making her Broadway debut.
The Broadway production features Alicia Keys as both producer and composer of the music in-between the scenes. Director Kenny Leon, who had such success on Broadway with the star-laced “Fences” and “A Raisin in the Sun,” here has cast a few familiar faces, such as Dule Hill, from “The West Wing” and “Psych.” The set by David Gallo is detailed, luxurious, and imposing.
Whether or not this Broadway-buffering is necessary – or sufficient – to fill the Cort Theater is not clear. But the secret to “Stick Fly”s successful track record despite some nagging flaws may be that the play can be seen in three different ways – as a guilty-pleasure soap opera, as an entertaining comedy, and as an insightful discussion of the interplay between race, class and gender in America.
It is summer, and everybody is returning to a home that has been in the family for generations, a magnificent Victorian cottage on Martha’s Vineyard. Dr. LeVay is a neurosurgeon who “married up,” to a woman descended from the first black man, a sea captain, to be given land on the island, as a reward for rescuing the mayor.
Both sons are bringing home new girlfriends to introduce to their parents. The younger son, Spoon (Dule Hill), has been (much to his father’s disappointment) a perpetual student – with a law degree, a business degree, a masters – until he has finally found his calling, and is about to get his first novel published (Since the wayward daughter in Other Desert Cities is also a novelist, the characters in Seminar are all novelists, are we seeing a trend?) Spoon’s fiancé is Taylor (Tracie Thoms), the daughter of a famous black author and intellectual who abandoned his first family, so that Taylor was raised by a single mother and grew up in genteel and resentful poverty. She is also a graduate student in entomology, who studies flies by putting them on a stick. The older son, Flip (Mekhi Phifer), is, like his father, a physician (a plastic surgeon instead of a neurosurgeon) and, also like his father, a ladies’ man. But his girlfriend has her own baggage. Kimber (Rosie Benton) is “melanin-challenged” – white. To ease the stigma, Flip introduces her as Italian.
Complications and confrontations ensue, revelations roar forth – such as where Mrs. Levay is, and how Flip knows Taylor – sometimes far too abruptly. One major revelation is made by somebody on the other end of a telephone, neither especially credible nor theatrically satisfying. But something is going on here besides an overstuffed and occasionally implausible plot. There are threaded throughout the play some tantalizing discussions about what it means to belong, or be excluded, based on your race or class. Even more astute are several moments in the play, such as one involving Cheryl (Condola Rashad), a teenager first seen scurrying about with laundry and then busy in the kitchen. Taylor mistakes her for a member of the family. But Spoon explains: “Cheryl’s Mom Ms. Ellie has helped Mom for years.” But Ms. Ellie is sick, so Cheryl has taken her place.
It takes a moment for Taylor to understand what is being said: “Oh, you’re the maid!”
The LeVays and Cheryl react to this comment with a long awkward pause. And in that pause is contained a world of meaning.
Cheryl winds up being the most interesting character in “Stick Fly” – helped along by a performance by Condola Rashad (who is Phylicia Rashad’s daughter) that is a stand-out in a generally competent cast.
In one of her early plays, entitled “Stage Black,” Lydia Diamond lampoons the typical depiction of black family life, as requiring sexual abuse, angry young men and (in the words of one reviewer) wise-if-randy grandfathers. As family drama, “Stick Fly” will not be mistaken for “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” or “August: Osage County,” but please tell me the last time you saw on a Broadway stage a black neurosurgeon with a fishing rod.
For up-to-the-minute theater news, views and reviews, follow Jonathan Mandell on his Twitter feed at @NewYorkTheater
At the Cort Theater, 138 West 48th Street
By Lydia R. Diamond
Directed by Kenny Leon; sets by David Gallo; costumes by Reggie Ray; lighting by Beverly Emmons; sound by Peter Fitzgerald
Cast: Dulé Hill (Kent LeVay), Mekhi Phifer (Flip LeVay), Tracie Thoms (Taylor), Ruben Santiago-Hudson (Joe LeVay), Rosie Benton (Kimber) and Condola Rashad (Cheryl).
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes with one 15 minute intermission.
Ticket prices: $35 to $131.50
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