NEW YORK (AP) — Ho, hum. A new play on Broadway features a rich family that gathers at their tony vacation home on Martha's Vineyard, with each son bringing his new love interest and triggering a weekend of pure dysfunction. Tres vanilla, right?
Well, not vanilla at all, actually.
Lydia R. Diamond's thoughtful "Stick Fly," which opened Thursday at the Cort Theatre, is reminder to all those who still need reminding that money doesn't bring happiness, or make snobbery go away or get families to stop bickering.
Diamond's work fittingly recalls the New England playwright Eugene O'Neill, exposing as it does the hidden secrets of a family and the agonized relations among fathers, sons and the women who love them. In this play, most of the people just happen to be black.
It's a traditionally structured, rich brew exploring intra- and inter-racial prejudice and family trust, with a jolt of class warfare, self-hatred, sexism, sibling rivalry, gender strife and post-coital shame. Who said white folks should have all the fun?
Diamond's characters are from what the Occupy movement would decry is the hated 1 percent: They're lawyers and doctors who went to Exeter and Harvard or are doing a "post-Doc at Johns Hopkins." They eat lobster, think it's roughing it when they have to drive "dad's old Saab" and use the word "pituitary" when playing Scrabble. The get their maids to mix them up mojitos and take their coats.
Meet the LeVays, led by Ruben Santiago-Hudson as Joe, a neurosurgeon with a chip on his shoulder even though he lives a comfortable life with homes in Aspen, New York and the house on the Vineyard, filled with Romare Beardens.
His two sons — Dule Hill as Spoon, a lawyer-turned-budding novelist, and Mekhi Phifer as Flip, a plastic surgeon — are opposites. Spoon is gentle and loving, whereas his older brother is arrogant and has an eye for the ladies.
The three men are joined on this weekend in 2005 by three young women: Taylor (Tracie Thoms), Spoon's fiancée and the daughter of a renowned intellectua; Kimber (Rosie Benton), a privileged white woman who studies racism in education and is Flip's current squeeze; and Cheryl (Condola Rashad), the daughter of the family maid filling in for her ailing mom, and about to go to college.
There is a seventh presence hanging over the production, and not always helping: Singer-songwriter Alicia Keys, who is a producer and has supplied original music. It's her name ostentatiously at the top of the theater's marquee, unbalancing this introspective, unshowy drama. And her music played between scenes has some funky and groovy piano, but it's rather too loud and intrusive, like an insistent child wanting attention.
Diamond's script bites off a lot. It explores a father's relationship to his sons, a potential love triangle, the costs of divorce on children, a dangerous family skeleton that comes as hardly a shock and an examination of whether ethnicity trumps class. And so parts of the play sag while others bloat. But ripples of recognition and cracks of applause erupted during a recent preview.
Kenny Leon directs with a sure hand, getting his actors to peel their personal onions slowly, often with a glance or a nod. He deftly handles a pair of parallel scenes with overlapping dialogue between Dr. LeVay and Taylor on one side and Flip and Kimber on the other, but the purpose of the moment remained mysterious.
In the role of Taylor, Thoms shines. This former "Rent" star is stunningly vulnerable as an entomologist riddled by self-doubt and longing for love, yet arrogant about her own intellect and ultimately unhinged by her own racing mind. A child of privilege — though not of money — she's a stranger in the land of Martha's Vineyard, an observer who suffers from blind spots.
Benton plays Kimber with a smile and a playfulness that shouldn't be confused for a lack of self-confidence; she's not afraid of telling a black woman that her views on race are misguided. And Rashad squeezes out everything from a hard role as Cheryl: resentment for her position in life, lusting after a member of the family, wary of these strangers, feisty in her defense and finally almost catatonic when a bombshell is revealed.
The men are written without as much complexity as the women, and the acting suffers as a result. While Santiago-Hudson and Phifer ("ER") do a great job with the cocky sides of their characters, Hill — known for TV roles in "Psych" and "The West Wing" — seems too quiet and internal. He's no match for Phifer, who shows a knowing, predatory charisma.
David Gallo's set is likely to divide audience opinion. He's designed a single with three distinct areas — living room, kitchen and patio — but the audience sees into the kitchen from a zigzag wall gash, as if a giant buzz saw had plowed through the house.
"Stick Fly" had its world premiere at Chicago's Congo Square Theatre Company in 2006 and has been seen at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston and Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.
Diamond has something special here and her Broadway debut, which takes its name from the way entomologists observe fast-flying flies, is a refreshing chance to scrutinize an elite slice of America one rarely sees on stage and find out that their life also stinks enough to attract flies.