By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 11, 2010; C01
Who, exactly, are the LeVays? The existential question seems to circulate silently among the denizens of "Stick Fly," Lydia R. Diamond's snappily contentious, if excessively soapy, comedy about a wealthy African American family that cannot quite figure out how and where they all fit in.
Diamond -- whose adaptation of Toni Morrison's early novel "The Bluest Eye" received a splendid production several years ago by Theater Alliance -- populates this 2006 play at Arena Stage with a gallery of vivid characters nursing past hurts and fresh wounds. Breezily guided by director Kenny Leon, the cast features some vivacious comic performances, particularly by Nikkole Salter as the tightly wound girlfriend of one of the LeVay sons, and Amber Iman, playing the sharp-tongued daughter of the family housekeeper.
As it unravels the characters' foibles and insecurities, "Stick Fly," set in the LeVays' luxurious vacation house on Martha's Vineyard, settles enjoyably into the lively tensions of the household. (David Gallo's realistic scenery expertly evokes the vacation home's burnished wood and gleaming appliances.) A scene, for instance, in which the LeVay sons and their romantic partners spar over a drunken game of Scrabble allows the characters to be seen at their most endearingly spontaneous. At such moments the play feels appealingly untethered and self-assured.
Ah, but then there's the plot. Inevitably, the audience is forced into a story of scandalous betrayal, a contrivance that turns "Stick Fly" into a comedy far more conventional than Diamond's characters deserve. That the pivotal revelation occurs during a casual local call -- would a loving mother really disclose a secret this longstanding and devastating to a child by phone? -- comes across as too convenient by half.
The framework, though, is very inviting, because "Stick Fly" is an attempt to illuminate an American family whose particular view of comfort is not as cushioned by its material and professional accomplishments as it might have hoped. In the play, patriarch Joe (Wendell W. Wright), a neurosurgeon who married into the first black family to own land on the Vineyard, is entertaining his sons Flip (Billy Eugene Jones), a plastic surgeon, and Kent (Jason Dirden), a dilettante turned novelist. As Iman's Cheryl, a student at an ultra-elite Manhattan private school, tends to the meals, the sons tend to their girlfriends, Kent's flame, Taylor (Salter), and Flip's lover, Kimber (Rosie Benton). Mysteriously absent is Joe's wife, who the father vaguely assures everyone is soon to arrive.
The young women are intellectually formidable: Taylor is a grad student at Johns Hopkins whose field is the behavior of houseflies -- the play's title derives from a method of recording their elusive flight patterns -- while Kimber teaches in an inner-city school. The provocation is that Kimber is white, a fact that turns out to antagonize the deceptively ingratiating Cheryl more than anyone. (A funny conceit has Flip insisting to his family that Kimber is Italian, as if Mediterranean blood makes her whiteness more digestible.)
The character could have sidetracked "Stick Fly," transforming it into a facsimile of one of those facile scripts about the ups and downs of interracial dating. Kimber, though, performs a more sensitive role. Her presence becomes one of the catalysts for a more thoughtful exploration of the pressures and conflicts in a household in which everyone is grappling on some level with how completely they can accept, and are accepted.
The preoccupation extends from Wright's Joe, who complains that though he spent a fortune renovating the house, he's still perceived on the island as an outsider, to Dirden's Kent, who holds out hope his father will forgive his unorthodox career path. Taylor mourns for her own father, a revered author who abandoned her and her mother; Kimber waits for playboy Flip to take her seriously; Cheryl pines for acknowledgment of her own clouded status. It's too bad only that the dramatist felt it vital to lace the tensions with such melodramatic strings.
Leon's actors make Diamond's pungent dialogue their own. Salter, who with Danai Gurira created a stir with the compelling "In the Continuum" at Woolly Mammoth, gives a satisfying spice to her scenes here. Dirden, Benton, Wright and Jones are all better than good, and Iman layers onto Cheryl's adolescent moodiness a sense of real sadness. How much more impact these performances would have if the play's mechanics didn't sometimes let them down.
by Lydia R. Diamond. Directed by Kenny Leon. Costumes, Reggie Ray; lighting, Allen Lee Hughes; sound, Timothy L. Thompson; fight director, Robb Hunter. About 2 hours 35 minutes. Through Feb. 7 at Arena Stage in Crystal City, 1800 S. Bell St., Arlington. Visit http://www.arena-stage.org or call 202-488-3300.