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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Stick Fly and
Pride and Prejudice

Also see Tim's reviews of Cock and She Stoops to Conquer


Biko Eisen-Martin and Joniece Abbott-Pratt
Photo by Mark Garvin
Stick Fly has an inviting setting and a compelling premise. Lydia R. Diamond's play is set in the luxurious Martha's Vineyard summer home of an affluent African-American family. Sleek but not ostentatious, the home (designed by David P. Gordon) is the sort of place you'd want to spend a lot of time in. But things here are not as rosy as they may appear. Stick Fly has a lot going for it, including crisp dialogue and multi-faceted characters, and it's never less than interesting. Yet, while director Walter Dallas' production for the Arden Theatre is appealing and engrossing, in the end the play doesn't feel completely satisfying.

As Stick Fly opens, the members of the LeVay family arrive one by one at the property that has been in their family for centuries. Joe, the patriarch, is a prominent doctor who is warm and joking one minute and callously judgmental the next. Joe's adult sons Flip, a plastic surgeon, and Trent, a would-be novelist, have each brought their new loves along; one of the ladies is black and the other is white. Pretty soon, the women are having heated arguments over feminism and racial politics that drive a wedge between them. But while they're preoccupied with global social issues, personal issues are bubbling to the surface. For instance, why hasn't Mrs. LeVay shown up this weekend? "Oh, you know women," says Joe with a shrug—but there's something going on that he doesn't want to talk about. And then there's eighteen-year-old Cheryl, who's filling in for her mother, the longtime family maid. Flip's girlfriend Taylor doesn't know how to deal with a black maid—can she give Cheryl orders without offending her racial sensibilities? But Cheryl is more concerned with the ongoing telephone argument she's having with her mother. Pretty soon, family issues will come to the forefront, and this happy clan will be a lot less happy.

The best thing about Stick Fly is the depth that Diamond gives her characters. These characters are intriguing, with a complexity we don't see enough onstage. And Diamond's observations about family, sex and class are universal ones, sure to resonate with audience members of any background. But while Diamond's dialogue percolates with intelligence, it also veers uneasily between wit and vulgarity. Too much of the plot relies on contrivances that don't seem convincing—why did that person walk into the kitchen at precisely the wrong moment? And the big revelation in act two is one that you'll see coming a mile away; once it arrives, the play takes a soapy turn that it never recovers from. Finally, the lack of an emphatic resolution makes the play feel unfinished.

Dallas' production has a tight ensemble feel, with each actor lending support; nobody hogs the spotlight here. (Watch the delightful way the cast sets the kitchen table in act two, operating with the precision of a drill team.) Most of the performances are vibrant, especially Jerome Preston Bates as the domineering father, U.R. as the cocky Flip, Jessica Frances Dukes as the erratic Taylor, and Julianna Zinkel as Kimber, the white girlfriend who isn't all that she seems. But Biko Eisen-Martin's Kent seems strangely detached and unemotional during some of the play's most crucial moments. And Joniece Abbott-Pratt's Cheryl is too subdued to make a big impact, even when the play turns into Cheryl's story.

Stick Fly is so rich in so many ways, so full of potential, that it hurts to see it go awry. It has all the elements of a great drama, except for the drama itself. But even an imperfect, unsatisfying play like Stick Fly will give you much to think about, especially in a fine production like this one.

Stick Fly runs through December 22, 2013, at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $36-$48 (with discounts available) and may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at 215-922-1122, or online at www.ArdenTheatre.org.



Hannah Kahn and
Michael Halling

For another style of family drama—one with a markedly happier ending—there's Pride and Prejudice at Bristol Riverside Theatre. Jane Austen's tale of the five Bennet sisters and their struggles with the demands of propriety and the English class structure is well presented, and director Keith Baker has added some elements that enhance the story's warmth and dramatic sweep.

Jon Jory's stage adaptation of Austen's novel ran this past spring at Hedgerow Theatre in Delaware County. When I saw it then, I admired the way that Jory condensed the story while retaining the flavor of the book; he achieved this mostly by retaining big stretches of the book's dialogue. But while Hedgerow's version was fine, Bristol's version is a big improvement. For starters, there's Meghan Jones' handsome set and Linda Bee Stockton's detailed costumes, which convincingly place us in early 19th century England. Kate Ashton's lighting does a good job of focusing the audience's attention during crowded scenes. Then there's Stephen Casey's precise choreography for the ballroom scenes, shown off best in the way that the rector Mr. Collins (Grant Chapman) makes himself look ridiculous by leaping way too high during what should be a stately number. Moments like this reveal Collins' social awkwardness better than any dialogue could.

Baker has added tiny touches that help the three younger and semi-forgotten Bennet sisters stand out as distinct personalities; for instance, instead of just being told that sister Mary (Rose Fairley) is studious, we see her wearing glasses and rarely lifting her eyes from the book in her hands. It may be a bit clichéd, but it's an efficient way of defining a character that doesn't have many lines. And the production also has added dramatic pauses that make the plot easy to follow while allowing the audience the time to get more invested in the characters. That's important for a show like this, which could have easily seemed stodgy and passé. (The production doesn't seem sluggish; still, one disadvantage to using so many pauses is that, at about two hours and forty-five minutes, this Pride and Prejudice runs more than half an hour longer than Hedgerow's version.)

Hannah Kahn's stalwart Elizabeth Bennet and Michael Halling's dashing Mr. Darcy make quite the romantic couple; their kiss at the end has a surprising amount of heat. (But can't the dignified Darcy bring himself to smile for the first time afterwards?) Jessica Bedford radiates tenderness as sister Jane, Jo Twiss shows off good comic delivery (and an infectious laugh) as Mrs. Bennet, and Mary Elizabeth Scallen is both funny and fearsome as Lady Catherine, who tries to prevent her nephew Darcy from marrying beneath himself (why, think of what it would do to her social standing!).

This version of Pride and Prejudice may not be groundbreaking, but it's produced with care and invention, and ends up being a rewarding take on a familiar story.

Pride and Prejudice runs through November 24, 2013, at Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, Pa. Ticket are $31, with discounts available for students, military and groups, and are available by calling the box office at 215-785-0100 or online at www.BRTStage.org.


-- Tim Dunleavy



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