December 21, 2011

Will "Stick Fly" Have Sticking Power?

Somewhere Lorraine Hansberry must be smiling.  When A Raisin in the Sun opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in 1959 on, she was the first black woman to have a play produced on Broadway. There haven’t been many others in the five decades since then. The only ones I can think of are Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf in 1976, Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog in 2002 and  Regina Taylor’s Drowning Crow in 2004. 

But this season has been a good one, in the words of a posthumous Hansberry show, to be young, gifted and black. For it has brought Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop (click here to see my review) Lydia R. Diamond’s Stick Fly and, coming in January, Park’s revisal of Porgy and Bess and a revival of Margaret Edson’s Wit, which won the Pulitzer Prize when it ran off-Broadway in 1998. 

But even more noteworthy is the fact that none of these plays (with the exception of Porgy) fits into what is euphemistically called the “urban drama” genre. That usually means the play deals with the problems and, more often, pathologies of poor black people.  But that is particularly not the case with Stick Fly, now playing at the Cort Theatre. 

Stick Fly is a flawed play. It boasts enough coincidences and melodrama to fill a couple of seasons of a show like “Desperate Housewives.” But it’s also a thought-provoking play and a highly enjoyable one.

The story centers around the affluent LeVay family.  Mom is a progeny of the light-skinned black aristocracy, dad is an accomplished neurosurgeon, their oldest son is an Ivy League-trained plastic surgeon and the youngest, the underachiever in the family, has three graduate degrees and is about to publish his first novel. In short, they make the Huxtables on the old TV show “The Cosby Show” look like sluggards. 

The play opens as the LeVays are gathering for a summer weekend at their grand country home on Martha’s Vineyard (stage directions make a point of saying that the house in not in the heavily-black section of Oak Bluffs). Both sons are bringing home women to meet the family but mom is slow in arriving and the family’s longtime housekeeper is ill and so has sent her teenage daughter to fill in.

As you might expect, the normal social unease is exacerbated by surprise discoveries and suddenly revealed secrets. Luckily, Diamond has a gift for natural and often humorous dialog.  

Yet, underneath it all she also makes some trenchant observations about class that seem to transcend race. Even if the metaphor she uses for her title (one character is an entomologist who studies houseflies) is never fully explained and she can't resist wrapping things up a little too tidily at the end (click here to read the playwright's thoughts about the show). 

In an apparent attempt to draw audiences, the cast has been filled with familiar TV faces. Mekhi Phifer (from “ER” and “Lie to Me”) and Dulé Hill (“Psych” and "The West Wing”) play the brothers, Tracie Thoms (“Cold Case”) is the fiancée of the youngest brother and Ruben Santiago-Hudson (a stage vet who until last year was the captain on ABC’s cop show “Castle”) plays the dad. They’re all fine, with the exception of Hill who’s somewhat wooden as the younger sibling. 

Ironically, it’s the lesser-known Condola Rashad who turns in the most supple performance of the evening.  Rashad, the daughter of Phylicia Rashad and the niece of Debbie Allen, was lovely in Ruined a few seasons ago but she’s matured as an actor and gives a performance so honest and detailed that I wish the play had focused on her character.

If only the rest of the production were as elegant.  Director Kenny Leon, the go-to-guy for black shows on Broadway (he did August Wilson’s final play, Radio Golf, the revival of Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, last season’s Tony-winning revival of Fences and this season’s The Mountaintop) keeps things moving on stage but he should have taken a firmer hand with the design team. 

David Gallo’s set looks too ponderous and might have worked better on a turntable than with the awkward half walls that cut a hole in the living room so that the audience can see into the kitchen. Beverly Emmons’ lighting works hard to direct the eye where it should go but is too often defeated.

Of course even if he’d wanted to, Leon probably couldn’t have done a thing about the incidental music, which was composed by the R&B singer Alicia Keys, who is also the show’s marquee-name producer.

One of Keys’ tunes opens the show and then plays on and on and on before any of the cast members appears.  I’d hoped that Leon was just trying to get the obligation to Keys out of the way but other tunes kept popping up and overstaying their welcome during the long scene changes that pushed the running time to an unnecessary 2 hours and 40 minutes.

Straight plays are having a tough time on Broadway this season and Stick Fly is no exception. It sold only 56% of its seats last week.  Which is too bad. Judging from the whoops and "uh-huhs" in the audience, Stick Fly has the potential to be a crowd pleaser. 

And not just for black crowds. In fact, whites in the audience at the performance my friend Joy and I attended were laughing and uh-huhing just as enthusiastically as the blacks were. As the spread of the Occupy Movement has shown, class warfare is something almost everybody can identify with.

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