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Arena Stage Stick Fly

By • Jan 13th, 2010 • Category: Reviews
Stick Fly by Lydia Diamond
Arena Stage
Arena Stage in Crystal City, Arlington, VA
Through February 7th, 2010
2:30 with one intermission
$25-$66
Reviewed January 7, 2010

In The Colored Museum, George Wolfe’s hilarious 1985 satire on the joys and foibles of all things African American, one of the funniest exhibits is the Mamma on the Couch Play. Wolfe, a pioneering black theater arts innovator, was exasperated beyond bearing by the gloomy ghetto dramas in which a poor-but-righteous church-going matriarch heroically upholds virtue against an onslaught of contemporary urban sin and rascality. Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 Broadway stunner, would be the archetypal Mamma on the Couch drama.

Lydia R. Diamond — like Hansberry, a product of Chicago’s bouncy theater milieu — is a considerably better playwright than her predecessor. Her best known play, Stick Fly, does indeed have a couch center stage. But it is a sleek dark leather item. No faded ghetto floral-print chintz for the affluent African American LeVay family of Manhattan, Martha’s Vineyard and Aspen. And no mamma either.

The absent LeVay matriarch raises a central question in Diamond’s comedy drama about sorry secrets and happy hopes. Buzzing around the central secret are a half dozen sub-secrets, each worthy of a gossip column in itself. For Stick Fly is a gossip feast. Sibling rivalries are supplemented by jealousy, dueling girlfriends, resentful sons, an offensive/defensive father and a sassy teen. The teen, by the way, is right out of the immense anthology of TV sitcoms that have relied on put-down humor from disrespectful youngsters.

The current Arena Stage production of Stick Fly is rife with sass and disrespect. As the teen, Amber Iman has the peculiar job of speaking ghetto Ebonics though her character is a graduate of an exclusive Manhattan private school. Iman supplies enough energetic spite and confusion to make the character semi-plausible.

Wendell W. Wright as the father, a neurosurgeon, and Billy Eugene Jones as the older son, a plastic surgeon, convey the nearly hidden anguish of men who uphold a manly code of babes and wealth but aren’t as satisfied as they think they should be, spectacular accomplishments not withstanding. Rosie Benton as the plastic surgeon’s current babe is a trophy, yes. She’s white, for one thing, from old money. But Diamond’s writing and Benton’s acting supply engaging portions of fiery intelligence, unbridled malice and remorseful good will.

Jason Dirden as the sensitive younger son has his share of anguish, none of it hidden. He’s a beginning novelist. Dirden shades the inevitable self-doubts with bursts of high spirits. The father vents his wide nasty streak by attacking what he sees as his younger son’s alleged failings and inadequacies. Offsetting that attacks are the plentiful affirmations supplied by the younger son’s fiancee.

The fiancee is the productions strongest element. As played by Nikkole Salter, this woman — a biology PhD.D. specializing in insects — has her share of woes and grievances. Her brilliant father left her and her mother and started a second family, never to look back. But Salter conveys unlimited intellectual pizazz and fun-loving high-spirits. She is the The One to Watch: one of those performers who charge up a production, the person we keep looking for, wondering what she is going to do or say next.

Besides creating engaging characters, Diamond excels at sharp dialogue. Much of it is like TV writing, sure. But that’s entertainment. What about this for one-liner ingenuity: “God, you scared me!” “God is so formal. Just call me Flip.”

Though her characters and her dialogue are admirable, Diamond sometimes has trouble telling her story. Toward the middle of the second act the dramatic action bogs down in excessive detailing of case histories. As the injustice collections are laid bare and theories are kicked around, the question arises, “Is this a play? Or a psychosocial exploration of ethnicity and economics?” Director Kenny Leon‘s cast settles onto that front-and-center couch. And they gab. Suddenly set designer David Gallo‘s sleek scenery, equipped with no less than a half dozen entrance/exits, falls into static shadows. The many doors, employed for farcically disruptive comings and goings worthy of a 19th Century French farce, are sadly neglected.

By the final moments, however, we’re back on track with what one character describes as “mirthful dysfunction.”

Photo Gallery

Amber Iman as Cheryl and Billy Eugene Jones as Flip Wendell W. Wright as Joe LeVay, Nikkole Salter as Taylor and Jason Dirden as Kent
Amber Iman as Cheryl and Billy Eugene Jones as Flip
Wendell W. Wright as Joe LeVay, Nikkole Salter as Taylor and Jason Dirden as Kent
Nikkole Salter as Taylor Rosie Benton as Kimber and Billy Eugene Jones as Flip
Nikkole Salter as Taylor
Rosie Benton as Kimber and Billy Eugene Jones as Flip
Jason Dirden as Kent and Nikkole Salter as Taylor Nikkole Salter as Taylor, Jason Dirden as Kent, Billy Eugene Jones as Flip and Rosie Benton as Kimber
Jason Dirden as Kent and Nikkole Salter as Taylor
Nikkole Salter as Taylor, Jason Dirden as Kent, Billy Eugene Jones as Flip and Rosie Benton as Kimber

Photos by Scott Suchman for Arena Stage.

Disclaimer: Arena Stage provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.

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lives in Arlington with his wife, daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren. Before retiring last year at age 70, he was theater critic at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for 27 years. Prior to that, he reviewed plays for the Philadelphia Bulletin, the Texas Observer and the Swarthmore College Phoenix. Non-reviewing journalistic jobs include writing for the Houston Chronicle, the San Juan (Puerto Rico) Star and El Mundo de San Juan. Think about it: most of the papers he worked for no longer exist. Maybe this internet gig has better longevity prospects.

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