by Lydia R. Diamond
Directed by Kenny Leon
Starring Dulé Hill, Mekhi Phifer, Tracie Thomas
and Ruben Santiago-Hudson
with Rosie Benton and Condola Rashad
Cort Theatre
Official Website

Reviewed by David Spencer

There’s a nasty rumor going about, spead by a number of critics who should (I think) know better, that Stick Fly by Lydia R. Diamond is something like a soap opera.

                        It is in fact nothing of the kind.

                        Soap operas tend to traffic in melodrama, lack of subtext (notwithstanding the villains with ulterior motives, though that tends to be unambiguously perceived by the audience too. And the collisions and juxtapositions of multiple storylines tend to be about effect rather than purpose.

                        Whereas there is yet another classification to which Stick Fly belongs—as yet unnamed, but I’m making it up—that is much more accurate. I call it The Overstuffed Pie. Which I mean affectionately, rather than a pejorative.

                        As the designation would indicate, the Overstuffed Pie is rich with story and character. A lot of plot threads converge upon a building catharsis. Broadly defined characters (not un-nuanced, but not subtle) and big revelations are ingredients too. Now: where does the Pie differ from the Soap?

                        First of all, it has a near-constant sense of irony. Second of all, it has a near-constant sense of humor. Third, it’s a not-very-distant cousin of farce. It’s well aware that it’s concentrating events into a contained frame in a heightened manner—but its mandate is to take the notion of exploring different aspects of a single theme by assigning each not only a character, but a subplot. (And in most cases a pair of characters is involved, since plot doesn’t occur in a vacuum.) And the collision of everything is the ultimate illustration of the thesis.

                        There aren’t many really good Overstuffed Pies around, but they make for edge-of-the-seat viewing, when they’re done right. Lorraine Hansbury’s The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window is one. Another is the Valerie Curtin/Barry Levinson screenplay for …and Justice for All.

                        And now there’s Stick Fly.

                        Ostensibly it’s a portrait of well-to-do African Americans. At the center are the LeVay family—we’re in their large, rambling Martha’s Vineyard home, and the grown LeVay “boys” have come for the weekend; doctor and playboy Flip, aka Harold (Mekhi Phifer), and his new lady-friend, a Caucasian teacher named Kimber (Rosie Benton); aspiring and soon-to-be-published novelist Spoon, aka Kent (Dulé Hill), and his ladylove Taylor (Tracie Thomas); the young 2nd generation servant and housekeeper, college age Cheryl (Condola Rashad)—and finally, the patriarch, another successful doctor, Joe LeVay (Ruben Santiago-Hudson).

                        Much has been made in the press of how “predictably” the story threads intersect, which seems odd to me because clearly Ms. Diamond wants you to see some of the revelations coming, because why else would she set certain cross-paths in motion. There’s an unexpected prior relationship among the group…of course it will be discovered…what’s at issue is how and with what consequence. There’s also a family secret the boys don’t know. But it’s related to why their mother isn’t here this weekend. And of course that will come to light; what’s at issue there is its ultimate meaning within the strong bond of family, and how it affects the definition of family (and more on that in a minute). There’s a difference between structure that’s neat and structure that’s schematic, and Ms. Diamond’s, in every good sense of the word (including colloquial) is neat.

                        In an intriguing way, one might well think of Stick Fly as a fulfillment of the legacy established by Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. That one was the first mainstream “primer” on the black experience in Eastern, urban America—the working class black experience of the late 50s and early 60s, with the Younger family struggling financially and dealing with thinly veiled bigotry as a mostly-white community they hope to move into tries to buy them off in an effort to keep the neighborhood “pure.” And, in keeping with variations on a unifying theme, each black character represented a real-life archetype white America needed to understand.

                        Stick Fly, though, deals with a family that has achieved the mainstream dream. Educated, moneyed, accepted both professionally and in the neighborhood (the wealthy neighborhood at that; the program note specifies that wherever we are in Martha’s Vineyard, it is not Oak Bluffs). And—in this play, with these characters, on this weekend—what’s being examined are not issues of race  (and in particular race contrasted against race) so much as issues of culture within a race; the race’s perception of itself, without the measuring stick of white society’s perception, which for these characters has been rendered a side issue. And the archetypes here aren’t social archetypes or “black family” archetypes, they’re any family archetypes, but ones that play out their functions within the environment of African American success. And in Stick Fly they aren’t fighting for their place in society; they’re fighting for (or struggling with) their level of acceptance in the hierarchy of family. What defines standards of decorum, accomplishment and responsibility for blood relation? What’s required to join the family as a romantic partner? At what point does domestic help attain honorary “you’re family” status?

                        These are hot issues, uniquely explored here, in a play that strikes me as not only terrific and terrifically entertaining (the audience response does not lie, and I’ve seen the show twice now), and terrifically important.

                        Kenny Leon has skillfully, smoothly and with terrific timing directed one of the best and most iconic straight play casts Broadway has seen in a long time (by which I mean there’s a lot of “role ownership” here; each actor has put his or her brand on the part being played). The work of the design team is likewise sharp, in particular the set design by David Gallo, which employs an original mixture of symbolic representation (partial, abstractly designed walls that “separate” the living room, kitchen and back porch from each other while leaving the action of each open and visible to the audience) and realism (the rooms and porch themselves).

                        Smart stuff, Stick Fly. And an exemplary Overstuffed Pie. As I say, I went back for a second helping. And I don’t do a lot of that these days, primarily because there’s so much to see and so little time. This one is, I promise, your time—and money—well-spent…

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