Peter D. Kramer

‘Stickfly’: Guess who’s coming to Martha’s Vineyard?

In Reviews on December 9, 2011 at 8:32 am

No one is precisely who they seem in “Stickfly,” which opened last night at the Cort Theater on Broadway.

We are on Martha’s Vineyard, but “not Oak Bluffs,” the Playbill announces. It is 2005 and this opulent summer place (magnificent set by David Gallo) will soon welcome the LeVay family — father Joe (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), sons Kent (Dulé Hill) and Harold (Mekhi Phifer) — and Kent’s fiancé Taylor (Tracie Thoms) and Harold’s girlfriend, Kimber (Rosie Benton).

Cheryl, the maid’s daughter, is here already, standing in for her ill mother, cleaning, preparing meals, topping off drinks, eager to please. Condola Rashad, the daughter of Tony-winner Phylicia Rashad (“A Raisin in the Sun”), makes her Broadway debut as Cheryl, demonstrating a command beyond her years. She’s certainly one to watch, and not just because Cheryl is one of the most interesting characters in playwright Lydia Diamond’s fine work. It’s Rashad’s economical and straightforward playing that breathes life into the character.

Everyone who comes through the majestic doors into the LeVay’s art-laden getaway has issues.

Kent (nicknamed “Spoon”) has applied none of his academic degrees and now has settled on writing fiction. He arrives, manuscript in hand. Hill plays him without fireworks, softly, a fine counterpoint to the other members of the family.

Harold (nicknamed “Flip”), arrogant and vulgur by nature, has the bearing his class affords him but he lacks class. Phifer, also in his Broadway debut, brings appropriate bluster to the boorish doctor.

Dr. LeVay (please, call him Joe) arrives without his wife. He reads books with a pipe clenched in his teeth. We learn that the pipe is just for show, there’s no tobacco in it. And where is Mrs. LeVay? Santiago-Hudson speaks volumes without saying a word.

Taylor in an entomologist, abandoned by her famous father who moved on to a second family. She is angry, bitter and wounded. She doesn’t wear it well. Thoms’ portrayal is the least convincing. You can see all the seams. She rushes her lines, steps on laughs and, generally, appears to be acting through much of the evening. In surer hands, Taylor — who carries much of the social commentary here — might have been more compelling.

Kember’s issue is that she’s white — “melanin-challenged,” Spoon jokes — although Flip swears she’s not white. “She’s Italian,” he declares. Benton’s part is interesting, if under-written. Yes, Kember leaps right into the mix, but Spoon seems like more of an outsider in his home than the lily white Kember does. Perhaps that’s playwright Lydia Diamond’s point.

Cheryl, too, has plenty of questions, but is unprepared for the answers to be so unsatisfying.

“Stickfly,” produced by Grammy-winner Alicia Keys and directed by Kenny Leon, marks a smashing Broadway debut for playwright Diamond, who has crafted a character-driven story that explores race and class, fathers and sons, and fathers and daughters.

There are moments that recall “August: Osage County,” a play with its share of secretive characters and explosive moments. There’s no lack of either here. There are accusations, justifications and deep wounds at work, in a well-written work of depth and just enough shadow to keep things interesting.

The title comes from the entomological method for studying fast-moving winged creatures. They’ll glue a fly to cardboard and record its actions as it is buffeted by stimuli. How a fly reacts says a lot about the fly.

How these characters react to the events of this particular weekend make for a fascinating evening of theater.

Tickets at Stick Fly on Broadway.

Photo by Richard Termine: Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Condola Rashad, Mekhi Phifer, Dulé Hill and Tracie Thoms in “Stickfly” on Broadway.

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