Sparking the drabbest Broadway season in recent memory is the ensemble cast of Lydia R. Diamond’s Stick Fly. There’s a reason why the play has been produced around the country for a few years now: It’s good material for actors, and the ones assembled for its New York debut are clearly enjoying kicking it around.
Good material, I emphasize, not altogether good writing, starting with the tortured insect metaphor that gives the show its title. This is a meet-the-parents scenario, in this case the LeVays, a prosperous African-American family living on Martha’s Vineyard and headed by the self-assured Joe (Ruben Santiago-Hudson). Sons Harold (aka Flip, played by Mekhi Phifer) and Kent (aka Spoon, played by Dulé Hill) are visiting for the weekend with their girlfriends, respectively the “Italian” Kimber (Rosie Benton) and the combustible Taylor (Tracie Thoms). That Kimber is white-skinned and Taylor thin-skinned, and that Taylor, soon to marry Spoon, once dallied with Flip, means a collision is due, but the crashes that occur over race and class aren’t always the expected ones. Also in the house and trying not to get underfoot is the teenaged Cheryl (Condola Rashad), the daughter of the LeVay family’s maid, who is substituting for her mother.
The whereabouts of Mrs. LeVay are the subject of speculation, though hardly the only thing the playwright has on her mind, as the show ambles through a litany of issues, which tend to arise in the darkened living room of David Gallo’s set and are resolved in the sun-lit kitchen. These include (but are not limited to) Taylor’s resentment of her father, a prominent scholar who has left her off his author’s bios, the one-upsmanship between the two sons, Kimber’s attempts to fit in, Cheryl’s inability to focus and Joe’s inscrutability. Just as temperatures are cooling and the healing seems to be beginning, Diamond lobs a grenade into the proceedings – a little too late, as the show, which tends to bog down between its snappier confrontations, can’t really contain the late-arriving revelation.
Still, this sort of family saga has a basic appeal, for performers and audiences alike. The Mountaintop director Kenny Leon has formed a credible family out of the men and gotten superior performances from the women. Thoms and Benton have some delectable exchanges as a pair destined to get on each other’s nerves from the get-go, then finding a kind of sisterhood beneath the skin. And Rashad, so affecting in Lynn Nottage’s Ruined, creates another indelible character here, a gangly young person who simply wants to matter. Set to a score by Alicia Keys that thumps through the scene changes, the actors of Stick Fly stick with you.