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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
With two sons bringing fiancees to meet mom and dad, mom's somewhat mysterious no-show, and the sick long-time maid's peppery young daughter filling in for her in the kitchen, there no lack of possibilities for clashing temperaments and explosive revelations. To give this genre of country house play a fresh twist, the LeVays are African-Americans, and to give that twist another turn, they belong an elite African-American world.
The unseen matriarch is royalty of sorts, her affluent ancestors being the first blacks to own land on the island. While the family money originated with her great grandfather Whitcomb, a sea captain, her husband Joe LeVay (Ruben Santiago-Hudson) has forged a distinguished career as a neurosurgeon and it's his money that has kept the home built on that land ship-shape and filled with books and original art work. The oldest son Harold AKA Flip (Mekhi Phifer) is a successful plastic surgeon. His younger brother Kent AKA Spoon (Dule Hill) has rejected a professional career even though acquiring several degrees to become a writer — a promising choice given that his first novel is about to be published though though not so in the eyes of his more traditional career oriented, demanding dad would. Clearly in addition to the father-son, personal identity issues and other evidences of dysfunction simmering beneath the surface geniality and likely to explode before the end of the weekend, race and class are bound to intensify and inflame the interactions during the two acts.
Except for putting the llfe styles of African-Americans not typically seen on stage or screen, Stick Fly isn't a ground breaking play. Ms. Diamond is essentially writing a play aimed to entertain by combining a family secrets and romantic comedy with the class and race issues to freshen up the otherwise fairly predictable and familiar plot developments. Flip's white fiancee (he prepares the family for this by saying she's Italian) is a new variation of Guess Who 's Coming to Dinner. The big secret is more a surprise to the characters in the play than the audience (I was pretty sure what it would entail by the time the intermission rolls around).
But while Stick Fly may be too soap-operatic to be a strong vontender for any Best Play awards, it is thoroughly entertaining. Diamond writes sharp dialogue with plenty of laughs and it's fun to watch her characters sort out their identity and relationship problems and deal with the secrets finally pushed out from beneath the surface beneath which they were lurking. It's the appeal of seeing a different cast of African-American characters on stage, and within the context of an amusingly written play that accounts for Stick Fly's various productions since 2006 at prestigious theaters ( the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston, Arena Stage in Washington, DC and the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ).
As deftly helmed by Kenny Leon the Broadway production boasts a splendid cast. Tracie Thoms is outstanding as Taylor, the younger LeVay son's girlfriend from a less upscale background. She's also the most volatile character and the one whose career as an entomologists who collects fast-flying insects and glues them to a stick to study their flight patterns. Her insect watching provides the play with its metaphoric title. That title is an obvious metaphor for the way the playwright puts Taylor as well as her on stage colleagues under the microscope for closer examination of their weaknesses and foibles.
As the boyfriend whose writing Taylor encouraged, Dule Hill is appealingly sensitive and admirably strong in the face of his dad's disdainful disapproval (an insensitive man marvelously portrayed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson). He also proves himself able to deal with the blow dealt him by his womanizing brother Flip (a sexy but not lacking in depth Mekhi Phifer).
Rosie Benton is delightful as Flip's' white well-to-do girlfriend Kimber who studies race dynamics in inner-city schools turns out to be one of the play's most endearing characters. Flip is lucky to have her, as is the audienc. Condola Rashad, the heartbreaking Sophie in the New York premiere of the Pulitzer Prize winning Ruined once again impresses as Cheryl, the daughter on weekend duty because her mother, the long-time family maid is sick. While there's no euphemisms for the LeVays (or, for that matter Taylor) — a maid is a maid! — the smart but scrappy eighteen-year-old is obviously a well-liked and well-known presence in the household. She's also smart and headed for college so she won't be a maid like her mother.
David Gallo's gorgeously detailed seaside house, enriched by Beverly Emmons, would make an invitation to spend a weekend there most appealing. A vicarious visit with Lydia R. Diamond's characters is the best next thing. Though a straight play, especially without big box office names, is a tough ticket to sell and thus an iffy long-run proposition, I hope this splendid cast will prompt New York theater goers to visit that inviting house via a trip to the Cort Theater. The diverse audience that packed the orchestra and balconies when I was there thoroughly enjoyed their visit.
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