December 11, 2011 4:45 pm

Stick Fly, Cort Theatre, New York

Stick Fly, the Lydia R. Diamond play that has arrived on Broadway after several productions across the US, is the theatrical equivalent of a beach read. If this sometimes engaging story about an affluent African-American family were a novel, it would be an ideal accompaniment to a long weekend at either a rustic shack or, were you more fortunate, to an upscale place like Martha’s Vineyard, where the drama takes place.

The setting is well-appointed: a beachside home kitted out with paintings by Bearden and Basquiat. The family – two handsome sons, each of whom has brought an attractive girlfriend with him to meet the demanding father – bristles with complications. Secrets waft through the air like a Vineyard sea breeze.

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The theatre, however, affords less licence to linger over the extraneous than does a holiday novel. At the outset of an evening, casual banter – of which Stick Fly has generous, well-observed doses – helps establish character and mood. But looseness of storytelling, which Stick Fly exhibits in Act Two, diminishes the power of a secret-spilling climax.

What’s more, Diamond’s approach to her characters tends a little too much towards “tell” rather than “show”. I lost count of how often her characters mentioned the high-toned schools they attended, or other obvious marks of privilege, even to a sibling or parent.

I kept wishing that Diamond and her director, Kenny Leon, had trusted their actors to let us infer aspects of race and class rather than banging us over the head with them textually. Do they really think that the Broadway audience for a serious play is so clueless about the ways of highly educated, materially successful African-Americans?

This production is fortunate in its actors: Ruben Santiago-Hudson as the authoritative neurosurgeon father, Joe LeVay; Mekhi Phifer as a plastic-surgeon elder son, Flip; and Dule Hill as the younger son, Spoon, whose writerly aspirations are looked upon as unmanly.

If the men’s behaviour drives the plot, the women’s performances deepen the mood. Aided by over-insistent incidental music by Alicia Keys, Stick Fly gives us two indelible portraits of young women longing for their fathers: Condola Rashad as the family’s domestic helper, Cheryl, and Tracie Thoms as Spoon’s girlfriend, Taylor. Each is heartbreaking.

3 stars

www.stickflybroadway.com

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