nytheatre.com review by Stephen Cedars
December 12, 2011
The experience of watching a contemporary American family play can be a lot like riding a roller coaster. The entertainment isn't just about relating to the characters—it's about riding the waves of shock, amusement and delight alongside an excitable, vocal audience. There's a reason Tolstoy's Anna Karenina opener has been cited to dust: we can all relate to the hyperbolic comedy of flawed, unhappy family dynamics, and so theatre on the subject provides a great venue to lead a large crowd into communal revelry.
By this standard, Lydia R. Diamond's play Stick Fly, which has been around many years but is only recently opening on Broadway, is a true delight. You'd have to be a misanthrope not to admire how raucously and consistently the packed house responds to the play's myriad reversals, revelations and outbursts. Set in a beautifully designed Martha's Vineyard house, the play follows a weekend retreat in which the African American LeVay family has gathered. Each of the two sons—Spoon and Flip, nicknames—has brought his new romance into the fold. Spoon is engaged to the loquacious, brilliant, and desperate-to-fit-in Taylor, while Flip has brought his white girlfriend Kimber along. The family dynamic is defined mainly by the patriarch, judgmental neurosurgeon Joe LeVay, and is rounded out by the presence of Cheryl, the 18-year old daughter of the long-time family maid, whose sickness has forced Cheryl to work in her stead.
Within the dynamic of the six characters lies a deck of cards that Diamond plays well enough to make the two-and-a-half hours fly by. The play's architecture is recognizable enough that it carries no surprises: the first 45 minutes introduces the characters with enough subtle suggestion of deep-seeded conflicts that characters willfully avoid unearthing; at the mid-point of Act I is an explosion that brings these to the surface; the character antagonisms are set up to be reversed as new alliances identify greater problems; secrets are revealed by accidental over-hearings; and so on.
But the fun isn't in the structure but in the particulars, and Diamond's world has several unique qualities that recommend it. First and foremost is that her affluent old-money family play, a recognizable form, features an African American family. That up-ended expectation is hardly un-addressed in the play, but neither is it the play's main theme. Instead, most of the tension comes from the various race and class dynamics that the characters drag into the house from their personal lives. At its core, the play rides on a group of well-educated, intelligent characters played by an excellent ensemble engaged in a series of blunt conversations that are thematically linked by the question of whether we are more informed by our individual choices or by the types that conditioning and birth place us into. All fascinating ideas that Diamond has spent much time crafting through her characters, and while the different opinions are well-considered, it's a tad disappointing that the play never delivers a satisfying theatrical experience of this theme. Instead, we get conversations and considerations, back-stories that illustrate the theme, and very few of those moments where our expectations are challenged. In the end, the characters rarely do transcend their "type," and their behavior falls too comfortably into what we are led to expect early on.
There are two significant exceptions in Taylor and Cheryl. In Taylor, the complication lies in the writing. Tracie Thoms does wonderful work handling Taylor's many, many speeches, but her depth comes from the contradictions that Diamond has layered into the character's past. Her intense racial opinions are informed by her family background, and her family background is informed by her class expectations, all with enough complexity that even we are never quite sure of what motivates her behavior. The other exception is Cheryl, whose presence adds the most interesting element of class resentments. But in this case, the complexity of the character is less in the writing—in truth, there are moments that are orchestrated far too patly for believability—and more in the seemingly effortless depth Condola Rashad brings to the role. Her intense stare more effectively suggests the depths of the play's conflicts than almost anything else on the stage.
But other than an over-reliance on secrets overheard by accidental entrances, there isn’t much to deter an audience from believing and loving the ride of Stick Fly. On some level, it isn't even a criticism to say that the highs and lows feel orchestrated—after all, on a roller coaster, that's exactly what we pay for.