Saturday, December 31, 2011

Stick Fly: The Little Play That Could

A Confrontational Moment in 'Stick Fly'

It’s New Year’s Eve, and I would like to end 2011 by championing a play that shouldn’t need championing, save for the fact that some of the professional critics have decided it is not Broadway-worthy.  A little snobbery, perhaps? 

It’s called Stick Fly, and for the past five years, it has had successful runs at theaters in Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, D. C., Boston.   Along the way, it has garnered a number of awards for seasoned playwright Lydia R. Diamond, including a L. A. Critics Circle Award last year.

It is now on view at the Cort Theater, and a better crowd-pleaser I have not seen in a long time.  It is a family drama that, like real-life family dramas, is both serious to those experiencing it and very funny to those on the outside looking in (i. e. the audience). 

Stick Fly tells the story of an upper middle class African American family, the LeVays, who get together for a summer getaway weekend at their home in Martha’s Vineyard

The characters include two sons, Kent (nicknamed “Spoon”), and Harold (aka “Flip”), each of whom has brought a girlfriend home to meet the parents.  Spoon’s girlfriend, to whom he has recently become engaged, is Taylor; Flip’s is Kimber.  Rounding out the cast of characters are Joe, the patriarch of the LeVay clan, and Cheryl, daughter of the family’s housekeeper, who is holding down the fort for her ill mother for the weekend.

Amidst games of Trivial Pursuit and Parcheesi, intellectual debates, and the social fuel of mojitos and pot, the playwright sets things up like a snake of dominoes, then lets them fall where they will. 

And fall they do.  Yet this is no August:  Osage County.  The quarrels and disappointments are far less melodramatic and soap opera-ish than that totally over-the-top encounter group of a play.   It’s more in line with one of A. R. Gurney’s tales about the foibles of America’s WASPs, both sharp and comic.

With Stick Fly, the triggers are issues of race, social class, and gender.  Kimber is herself a WASP (though Flip absurdly tries to pass her off as “Italian”), and her presence stirs up some passion in Taylor, who has spent her life trying to get her mostly white peers to understand that race still matters.  Taylor and Cheryl, though both well educated, were raised in middle middle class homes, and they feel an awkwardness of not quite fitting into the LeVays’ social milieu.  To add to the mix of problems, both Cheryl and Spoon have issues with Joe LeVay.

All of the “little murders” unfold over the course of the evening, though rarely does anything feel too coincidental for words or outside of the realm of the dramas that every family goes through.  There are a couple of meltdowns, but these are fairly well contained, and the clan survives the weekend without any major collapses.  They will all live to fight another day, and will undoubtedly do so when they get together for major holidays and events—just like the rest of us. 

This is a real strength of Stick Fly.  It never loses touch with reality, and it is clear that the playwright is fond of each of her flawed characters.  As much as I admired August:  Osage County, for example, the real feeling at the end of that play was one of relief.  With Stick Fly, we leave the theater feeling like we had had a really enjoyable time among the LeVays, and that even snarky Joe had his moments. 

There is a lot of honesty contained within the arguments that go on under the roof, and the issues that are raised ring true.   While some of the discussions about race and class and gender may seem collegiate, they are exactly the kinds of conversations that take place among engaged, intelligent college students and seem all the more real for coming out of the mouths of the young people in the play. 

The playwright has also planted some intriguing ideas about exploitation.  Much, for example, is made of the fact that this was the first black family to have a home in Martha’s Vineyard, thanks to a gift of land that was made to an ancestor, a sea captain whose exact line of work is never discussed.  It’s not difficult to imagine that this free black sea captain had been in the business of transporting slaves. 

It is also interesting to observe Cheryl’s interactions with the family.  Even though she has been a part of the family on some level her entire life (she is at least a decade younger than Spoon and Flip), she is still a black servant in a black household, and, as we learn, she and her mother have been exploited in other ways as well. 

Finally, although Spoon and Flip are the scions of the family, it is the women—Taylor, Kimber, and, especially Cheryl—who are most interesting to watch.  Despite their differences, the form an unexpected bond of real sisterhood which is certain to grow through the years.

The play is well directed by Kenny Leon, with a smart cutaway set by David Gallo and great summer duds by Reggie Ray.  One of its producers is singer-songwriter Alicia Keys, who has provided incidental music for the show.

The ensemble of players give solid performances and work well together:  Dule Hill as the sensitive Spoon; Mekhi Phifer as the more worldly older brother Flip; Rosie Benton as the rebellious Kimber; Tracie Thoms as the insecure Taylor; and Ruben Santiago-Hudson as the crass but occasionally charming Joe. 

But the play’s real kudos go to Condola Rashad, who shines as Cheryl.  Ms. Rashad (yes, she is Phylicia Rashad’s daughter) has excellent comic timing and serious acting chops (she was splendid in Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Ruined, a couple of years back).  And speaking of Lynn Nottage, that is a playwright I also thought of while watching Stick Fly, especially the humor that she wove through By The Way, Meet Vera Stark

All told, Stick Fly is a highly engaging and entertaining work, one that I hope will draw an audience through word-of-mouth.  I attended on a very stormy evening earlier this week, one that would have certainly kept me at home if I didn’t already have a ticket.  The rest of the rain-soaked audience, I imagine, felt the same way.  Yet I have seldom sat with theatergoers who were obviously having such an enjoyable time.  Lots of laughter, positive chatter during the intermission, and cheers at the end. 

Catch it while you can, and Happy New Year to all!

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