Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - December 8, 2011
Stick Fly by Lydia R. Diamond. Directed by Kenny Leon. Original music by Alicia Keys. Scenic design by David Gallo. Costume design by Reggie Ray. Lighting design by Beverly Emmons. Sound design by Peter Fitzgerald. Cast: Dulé Hill, Mekhi Phifer, Tracie Thoms, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Rosie Benton, Condola Rashad.
No, August Wilson and Lorraine Hansberry this isn't — though director Kenny Leon's experience with both lets him bring a sense of their gravitas and unique voices. Part of the considerable fun of Diamond's work (at least in the first act) is seeing how she rethinks, reorganizes, and sometimes contorts traditional American tropes about race and income to work with a family for which neither has ever been a significant obstacle. As the play is set in 2005, the LeVays have not yet seen a black president, but they have passed through a lot of other doors they have not had to open for themselves.
Diamond examines each of them, as well as the specialized woes of the rich, in turn, primarily through the eyes of Taylor (Tracie Thoms). The new fiancée of the younger LeVay son, Kent (aka Spoon), she's come to meet his brother, mother, and father at their posh Massachusetts manse (the towering, cinnamon-warm work of David Gallo), and is both overwhelmed and terrified by the prospect. She's not originally from their side of the tracks, you see: Though she's now an on-the-rise entomologist (she studies bugs), her college-professor mother raised her alone and with very little money, thanks to the author-intellectual father who abandoned her for another, "better" family.
It's an expansive playing field, and Diamond is both ready and equipped to explore every nook and cranny of it. How Taylor relates to having a servant for the first time (not well — she insists on doing everything herself, which just isn't proper). How she and Kimber receive different treatments because of their backgrounds. How the black family deals with the black "help," and too easily forgets how hard things can be for the poorer working folk. What responsibility means in terms of parents and children accepting each other, even when (or especially when) they may have excellent reasons for not doing so. Sibling rivalry, especially when it turns out that Taylor is not exactly unknown to Flip. And so on.
The cast makes the most of all of these opportunities, and more. Thoms compellingly portrays the confliction between Taylor's upbringing and her future, approaching each challenge with a confident grace that places her at home among the LeVays. Hill and Phifer have carved out detailed portraits of professional and personal listlessness that let us see the similar and divergent ways the brothers have conducted their lives of privilege. Santiago-Hudson crafts Joe as a tragic heavyweight, but portrays him with a dynamic fire that never lets you (or anyone else) pity him. Rashad, so wonderful in Ruined Off-Broadway in 2009, applies numerous layers to Cheryl's exasperation with the family, and kindles an increasingly abrasive fire of resentment as the evening presses on. Benton impresses as a no-nonsense other woman from an unusually high place in the social spectrum.
Stick Fly falters in only one way, but it's unfortunately a biggie. As cunning as Diamond is at setting up her dramatic dominoes, she's considerably less creative at toppling them. With all the tangles in the relationships and all the problems the characters face in terms of equity across racial and financial lines, very little that's new is revealed as they march toward their ultimate fates. The biggest of the Act II "surprises" is telegraphed early and often in Act I, and a lot of the other developments are not much more difficult to predict. If not for the superb actors and Leon's fiercely committed treatment of them, the gorgeously messy plot could not keep the play from being a snoozer.
Having so much story at her disposal may also not help Diamond tell it all; certain issues and confrontations keep coming up again and again, even when those in attendance should be learning something about themselves and each other. (An argument about prejudicial dynamics between Taylor and Kimber, for example, is a major flashpoint in the first act, but their revisiting the same notions after intermission feels like a rehash for rehash's sake.) If Diamond's point is that the LeVays have abandoned their ability to evolve humanistically because of their wealth, which the presence and attitude of Taylor seems to suggest, it's not made succinctly enough to have any real impact.
After all, even for rich folks, economy is key in the theatre. This is made clear during the scene changes, over which original compositions by R&B superstar Alicia Keys (also one of the producers) plays. The tunes throb with guttural base mingling with structured, flighty piano, creating a soundscape that's simultaneously bright and ominous. Even here, however, the writing is repetitive, sounding many of the same ideas in uninteresting progression until Beverly Emmons's lights come up to cut them off. It's a fascinating war of concepts, hampered by having too much of a good thing: the tension, the virtues, and the failings of Stick Fly all right there, in musical microcosm.