Thursday, December 22, 2011

Stick Fly

Photo: Richard Termine

Stick Fly, which is currently running at the Cort Theater on Broadway after bouncing around the country, has been described as an old-fashioned, domestic melodrama, and in some respects, that description fits the show just fine: The multigenerational members of a highly intellectual, accomplished, affluent family meet at their Cape Cod summer home for a weekend of rest, relaxation, and bonding over food, drink, and board games. Yet questions arise almost immediately, and the audience knows that they'll all be solved by the final curtain: How do the elder brother and the fiancée of the younger brother know one another? Where is the family matriarch, who was expected to show up with her husband, but hasn't? What does the aging maid--who is terminally ill, but so tied to this family that she has sent her teenage daughter to cover for her--want her daughter to talk to the family patriarch about? Why is said patriarch being so evasive, and so snippy? The audience--most of whom, unless they are watching the show from the rock they've been raised under, can see what's coming from miles away--nevertheless thrills to the ways in which such revelations occur. This is, in short, the stuff of classic domestic drama: heavy-handed and over-the-top sometimes, sure, but lots of dishy, dirty fun nonetheless.

Were it just a melodrama, Stick Fly would have been enough for me: the show was engaging, the characters were likeable for their flaws, and the story-line certainly held my attention, even though I, having not been raised under said rock, figured out the trajectory pretty quickly. But there's so much to this play that it defies traditional labels, and thus to simply call it a domestic melodrama is not fair, or accurate, in the end.

So here's the jist of Stick Fly, in a nutshell (ok, fine, larger than a nutshell; perhaps smaller, though, than a breadbox):
For all its accomplishments, brilliance, and wealth, the members of the LeVay family can't brush the chips from their shoulders. No one quite knows who they are in this play, and no one feels totally comfortable in their own skins, their own settings, their own homes. Joe LeVay, the patriarch (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), is a successful neurosurgeon who can't stop driving his two grown sons to succeed (but on his terms--not theirs), and can't shake the feeling that he is less of a man because he married into so much of his money. Harold "Flip" LeVay, the elder son (Mekhi Phifer), is a skirt-chasing plastic surgeon who's just a little too smooth with the many women he beds but can't, for the life of him, commit to. Kent "Spoon" LeVay (Dulé Hill), the far more sensitive little brother, is seriously overeducated, but for all his advanced degrees, can't settle on a career he feels comfortable with, let alone one that will please his exacting dad. The fact that both brothers have invited women to join them for a weekend that features a mysteriously absent matriarch and the gloomy presence of Cheryl (Condola Rashad), the daughter of the family's long-time maid, only complicates an already fraught family dynamic. You can escape the city for the fresh air of the Cape, sure, but you sure as hell can't escape your family when you go on vacation with them.

The two women, like their men, don't feel like they belong anywhere, and especially not at the LeVay summer home. Spoon's fianc
ée, Taylor (Tracie Thoms), seems, at least on the surface, to be a more comfortable fit for the LeVay family: an extraordinarily intelligent, almost ludicrously well-educated black woman, she is the daughter of a famous (deceased) professor of sociology. Yet her dad, who left her mother when she was young, never fully acknowledged her, and certainly didn't help her financially, which has left her positively trigger-happy with anger, defensiveness, and self-described exhaustion at feelings of alienation, abandonment, and of never "having a space that's all mine." Flip's newest girlfriend, Kimber (Rosie Benton), seems, again at least on the surface, comparatively more comfortable with herself, with material wealth, and with the privileges she's enjoyed and taken for granted through her life. But it doesn't escape her for a moment that, as a white woman who has fallen in love with a black man, she represents an awful lot of cultural baggage, and that she is not necessarily as welcome in the LeVay home as she is stiffly, and usually but not always pleasantly, tolerated.

The fact that the LeVay family is black adds a dimension right away, sure. Seriously, how many plays out there are about affluent, educated, cohesive black families? And then, how many of them are written (by Lydia R. Diamond), directed (by Kenny Leon), and produced (by Alicia Keyes) by black professionals, and how many of those run on the Great White Way to audiences that are, at least the day I saw Stick Fly, easily 65- to 70% black? Broadway, which remains stubbornly segregated at best, and lily white at worst, despite enormous, if maddeningly recent, strides, needs lots and lots more shows like this (and lots and lots more audiences like the one I watched the show with yesterday), but really, that's not Stick Fly's problem--it's ours. Thus: this is really not so much a show about race per se as it is about assumptions about race, and then, not so much assumptions about race as assumptions about class and gender.

The gender angle is not quite as pronounced as the class angle; while this is much a show by and about women, it wears its gender politics gracefully and intelligently. It should be noted that some of the best performances take place in some of the best scenes, which tend to be segregated along gender lines. A scene where the three women in the cast gather in the kitchen late at night for a drunken bitch-session is just wonderful, as is a revelatory scene between Hill and Phifer. Hill has been criticized for being a bit stiff in his role, but this particular scene is so effective and layered that it more than compensates for some of the clunkier, more expository stuff Hill has to work with earlier in the show. The cast, in general, is strong to excellent, but these scenes will stay with me the longest.

And while the class angle is hit the hardest throughout the show, there are quiet moments that speak loudest because they are so well-acted. A scene near the end of the show during which Rashad slowly, deliberately, self-consciously takes a seat at the kitchen table--which she has been manically setting, clearing, and cleaning for most of the show--is particularly profound.

So...race, gender, and class can't really, truly be separated in any realistic way, can they? And what do we mean by these terms? And in talking and talking and talking about them, as these characters do, what is helping, and what is hurting, and what is digging us all merely more deeply into our own, angry, hurt, defensive "post-racial" little corners? Diamond's characters--like many educated, affluent people I know--practically contort themselves to avoid offending one another along race, gender, or class lines. But the way they all, in avoiding certain assumptions, so easily and unconsciously step right into others is where the play gathers steam and force, and its most biting commentary; Diamond's refusal to let any of her characters off the hook, while at the same time refusing to punish them for being, in the end, human beings, makes Stick Fly downright powerful.

Stick Fly defies melodramatic trappings right up to the end: it concludes not by tying up all the loose ends and resolving all the family baggage by the time Sunday rolls around. Because, face it, I'll bet money that that's never going to happen in your family--it certainly won't happen anytime soon in mine. But the ending is hopeful, caused me to shed a couple of genuine, if totally unexpected tears, and left me with real affection for these flawed characters, all of whom deserve to find themselves and to find happiness, and thus to come to terms with whatever skin-tone, class status, and sex designation they've been handed in the process.

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