Taylor Bradley Scott (Michole Briana White) is an educated, independent, self-sufficient, attractive black woman with brains. You can’t beat that. She is also a feminist with a post-graduate degree in entymology from John Hopkins. However, all of that is not enough to make things go right for her when she accepts an invitation to spend a weekend with her fianc‚ Kent “Spoon” Le Vay (Kevin T. Carroll) at his snooty, affluent African-American family’s summer home on upscale Martha’s Vineyard.
But Taylor isn’t the only one slated to have a hard time of it in Lydia R. Diamond’s serio-comedy “Stick Fly,” playing at McCarter Theater through Sunday, October 14. Although Taylor has been raised by her single mother, a college professor, she is openly dismissive and resentful of her father, a recently deceased and renowned scholar, who divorced her mother before she was born. Nevertheless, she has a lot to be proud of, not the least of which is her ability to defend herself in the face of a challenge.
What fires up her ire is the testy reception she gets from other members of the LeVay family, all of whom will either provoke her or be provoked by her into confrontations. Despite the obligatory social graces practiced by the LeVays, Taylor is almost immediately conscious of the stilted and discomforting airs that define Spoon’s family with long-established roots in the local community. Dr. Joseph LeVay (John Wesley), the family’s autocratic patriarch, makes no bones about his disappointment in Spoon, who has decided to become a writer of fiction instead of pursuing law as a career. That Taylor is in full support of Spoon doesn’t help her win this brain surgeon’s support or admiration.
It doesn’t take long for Taylor to fall into one social trap after another, even to the point of being unwittingly condescending to Cheryl (Julia Pace Mitchell), the family’s bubbly and bright 18-year-old maid, who has assumed the duties usually performed by her ailing mother, a long-time family retainer. It doesn’t take us long to think there is something askew as Cheryl, who has also been well-educated and is preparing to go off to college, interacts rather too intimately with the family. She is also openly demonstrative in her affection for Spoon and his older brother Flip (Javon Johnson), a successful plastic surgeon.
To complicate matters (think Days of Our Lives meets One Life to Live), Flip has also invited his very pretty girlfriend, Kimber (Monette Magrath) for the weekend. She happens to be from a rich, white family with roots in Kennebunkport. Are we surprised that Kimber expresses the kind of liberal (read: harmful) views about which Taylor takes umbrage? Umbrage is the key motivation for all the highly opinionated weekenders, each of whom is skilled in the art of baiting and berating.
Taylor’s primary beef is the double standards applied to independent black women with smarts. Just as Taylor has made a successful career of putting insects under the microscope, the playwright chooses to put class consciousness, racial issues including the affected defenses of both clueless whites, and cultured African-Americans under the lens for almost three hours.
As expected, a past indiscretion pits one brother against another and a closeted family secret is exposed just in time to take everyone off their often hypocritical and mostly self-important posturing. It is to the playwright’s credit that the play only occasionally gives the impression of being a polemical thesis rather than what is it is: an amusingly convoluted, if brainy, soap opera (not an oxymoron). Director Shirley Jo Finney keeps the play’s many short, verbose scenes, a mix of labored and laugh-filled arguments, flowing smoothly.
White is excellent and winning as Taylor, who is alternately warm (towards Spoon) and feisty (towards everyone else) and whose agenda changes from being self-defensive to going on the offense when she is needed to add some spine to the gentler Spoon.
As Spoon, Carroll demonstrates a refreshing resolve in the face of his womanizing brother and the outward disdain of his insensitive father. Mitchell beguiles as the maid who is as apt to sing and dance eagerly through her duties as she is to abet her employer in his secret rendezvous with pig’s feet with hot sauce. Wesley lays on the gravitas with aplomb making Joseph’s comeuppance all the more satisfying.
What else can you say about Johnson, except that he fits the bill perfectly as the tall, dark, and handsome scoundrel Flip. The attractive Magrath holds her own mantel of white-upmanship with esprit de corps.
“Stick Fly” may be overlong, overwrought, and overly contentious, but despite these flaws, it remains almost giddily entertaining. Set designer Felix E. Cochren has created the handsome interior of a grand Martha’s Vineyard cottage and costume designer Karen Perry has put everyone in it into appropriately smart haute Vineyard apparel.
“Stick Fly,” through Sunday, October 14, 8 p.m. McCarter Theater at the Berlind, 91 University Place. East coast premiere of a contemporary drama by Lydia Diamond and directed by Shirley Jo Finney. $43 to $49. www.mccarter.org or 609-258-2787.