Lydia R. Diamond' new play "Stick Fly" portrays a panoply of black, educated, solipsistic characters, with one white girl thrown into the mix, often for comic effect.
Similar to Eugene O'Neill's family avatars of yore, the LeVay family represents a range of archetypes: the philandering overbearing father, played to the hilt by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, the meek younger brother (called Spoon by his girlfriend), well wrought by Dule Hill, who I still adore from the much-missed "West Wing".
Then there is the know-it-all swordsman older brother, who was usually pitch-perfect as interpreted by Mekhi Phiffer, but who falls down a bit when required to dip into his tool bag to find "sad". Add to this mix a mother who never shows up. The maid Cheryl is, for my money, the star of the show, a highly-strung and with good reason young woman with questionable lineage. She is played wildly by Condola Rashad.
Now add to the salmagundi the girlfriends: Spoon's girl is Taylor, a light-skinned upstart with a famous but absent political theorist father. Taylor is the emotional spinning wheel of the drama and Tracie Thoms brings it all: outrage, lunacy, love, hurt, abandonment, and a weird scientific whimsy. Rosie Benton is the WASPy sweetheart of older brother Flip. She is cool, calm, and outspoken about her work in the inner city and her love of a proud black man.
The Playbill jokingly identifies the locale as "Martha's Vineyard, 2005, Not Oak Bluffs" Most of us know that Oak Bluffs is the traditional stomping ground of the upper class black folks. Many well-noted ethnographies have been written about this high-end enclave, and generations of people from the Obamas to Oprah and poets from the Harlem Renaissance have summered there.
So the gag before the play begins is that these are black people inhabiting an enormous summerhouse, away from others of their group. The set by David Gallo is a home so huge and complicated that before the play begins it threatens to overtake the audience.
But once the actions starts, with the scenes set and punctuated by Alicia Keys' wonderful signature twangs and throbs, the decor works and seems perfect. It is within this sprawling mansion, attributed originally to the Wickham Family, (no relation to your scribe) that the drama of one family, which embodies so many of our families begins to unravel.
The direction by Kenny Leon usually holds all the scenes and characters together; it is only on occasion that scenes are played so far upstage as to lose some of the desired immediacy.
Everyone has converged for a summer vacation at the family home. The maid arrives first to spruce up the place, whipping off white linen furniture covers, mixing pitchers of lemonade and making a beeline for bedding and breakfast goodies.
Then the young, engaged couple, Taylor and Spoon, land and she begins cooing over the home's grandeur, stating that she had intended to marry Spoon because she loved him, but now she is reconsidering marrying for money. These kinds of tweaks and jokes proliferate throughout the play.
The dad enters next, without his wife. This surprises everyone and we spend the next two hours wondering why. We can see that there is no mother in the program, so we are not in doubt about whether she will appear. We need to wait to find out why.
Ruben Santiago-Hudson plays the father with ice in his veins, as least in regard to his younger son, who although possessing too many advanced degrees from Ivy League institutions, decides to be a writer. There are so many echoes of O"Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night" in this play.
The two sons engage in the constant revisiting of unfinished fights and the reopening of old wounds and unfinished business. There is a lot of booze, and while the unseen mother is not addicted to morphine as Mary is in O'Neill's version of family life, she is referenced as a constant shopper and someone who must be taken care of in the station to which she was born.
As well as tackling the family drama, "Stick Fly" attempts to deconstruct race, and more importantly, class. It investigates questions such as: Who is an outsider and does that come from color or money? How do we deal with class in America? Do we ignore it and consign it to other countries where Colonialism was more prevalent, or do we pull back the curtain on the vengeful class warfare being played out in the political arena today?
Ms. Diamond's play has some poignant elements of drama stuck to comedy and soap opera like the fly on a stick in her title. You don't need me to tell you who is related to whom, or who had sex years ago. You need to know that this is a big work, acted by some great talent that tackles the elemental issues we all face within families and society, but seen through the lens of African Americans: something of which we see too little.
"Stick Fly" enjoys an extended run at the Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St. For info and tickets visit http://stickflybroadway.com/