Lydia R. Diamond’s play “Stick Fly,” now on Broadway, appears to be sticking around. Following its world premiere at Chicago’s Congo Square Theater Company in 2006, it was subsequently produced by the Huntington Theater Company in Boston, Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. and most notably by Princeton’s McCarter Theater in 2007. I expect that this comedy-drama about a very unusual family facing some very unusual issues will find a receptive audience in New York. Although it hasn’t been trimmed (enough) as far as I can recall, as it still takes more than two and one-half hours to run its often melodramatic course, it is buoyed by plenty of clever dialogue and richly imagined characters.
Taylor (Tracie Thoms) is a well-educated, outspoken, attractive black woman with brains. You can’t beat that. She is also a feminist with a post-graduate degree in entomology from John Hopkins. However, all of that is not enough to make things go the way she would like when she accepts an invitation to spend a weekend with her fiance Kent (Dule Hill) — affectionately nicknamed “Spoon” by Taylor — at his affluent African-American family’s summer home at Martha’s Vineyard.
Taylor, who has been raised by her single mother, a college professor, 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 initially fires her up 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 during the getting-to-know-and-distrust-you opening scenes.
Despite the obligatory social graces practiced by the LeVays, Taylor is almost immediately conscious of the stilted airs and prominently snobby tone that define the family with their long-established roots in the local community. Dr. Joe LeVay (Ruben Santiago-Hudson) the family’s humorless, autocratic patriarch, makes no bones about his disappointment in Spoon’s decision to become a fiction writer 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 condescending to Cheryl (Condola Rashad), the accommodating 18-year-old who has taken over the duties this weekend that would normally have been done by her ailing mother, the family’s devoted, long-standing maid. Preparing to go off to college, Cheryl makes no excuses for being openly protective of Spoon and his older brother Flip (Mekhi Phifer), 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 (Rosie Benton), 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 activist liberal (read: suspicious) views about which the constantly confrontational Taylor takes umbrage?
Umbrage ultimately becomes the key response from all the highly opinionated weekenders, each of whom makes clear how skilled they can be at baiting and berating, challenging and castigating each other. 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 has put each and every one of her characters deftly under the wider lens of class consciousness, racial issues, sex, and sundry.
As you might expect, a past indiscretion pits one brother against the other, and a closeted family secret is exposed just in time to put an end to the often hypocritical and mostly self-important posturing that has been going on, much to our delight and without numerous commercial breaks. It is to the author’s credit that the play only occasionally gives the impression of being a polemical thesis rather than what it is: an amusingly convoluted, if also brainy, soap opera.
Thoms is winning as the feisty Taylor, who has no problem showing us her spine when it comes to defending the gentler Spoon. Hill, who is probably best known for his role as Charlie Young on “The West Wing,” can be commended for being the least inclined to overstate his discomfort. The tall, good-looking Phifer has what it takes to have us believe he may not only be a disarming scoundrel but also a chip off the old block as well.
The play’s most stunning and affecting performance is by Rashad, who initially garnered rave notices for her performance in Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Ruined” at the Manhattan Theater Club in 2009. She is making an impressive Broadway debut as Cheryl, whose tie to the family is as much a secret as are Dr. LeVay’s night-time rendezvous with pickled pigs feet with hot sauce. Acclaimed theater veteran Santiago-Hudson is splendidly dour as the uncompromisingly stiff-necked and autocratic Dr. Levay, whose comeuppance, however remorseless, issues a fine resolve to very entertaining play.
Director Kenny Leon has his work cut out keeping this overlong, overwrought, and overly contentious play from getting out-of-control. But the surprising result is that for all its prominent faults, certainly not David Gallo’s spectacular interior of a grandly scaled cottage on Martha’s Vineyard, it delivers a good time.
Post Script: A revelation in this play, at least to me, is finding out about the history of African-Americans on Martha’s Vineyard from the 18th century to the present. I recommend Jill Nelson’s book “Finding Martha’s Vineyard: African Americans at Home on an Island” (Doubleday, 2005). ***
“Stick Fly,” Cort Theater West, 138 West 48th Street. $35 to $131.50. 212-239-6200.