After Eden

Stick Fly at the Huntington; Paradise Lost at the ART; boom at New Rep
By CAROLYN CLAY  |  March 11, 2010

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STICK FLY: Lydia Diamond’s new play pulls apart the sticky issues of class, race, and sex.

One of the heroines of Stick Fly, a post-doctoral student of etymology, likes to smear honey on the table and then scrutinize the flies that get stuck in it. Playwright Lydia R. Diamond, whose 2006 work is seen here in a well-lived-in co-production by the Huntington Theatre Company and DC's Arena Stage (at the Calderwood Pavilion through March 28), trickles a sweet mix of situation comedy and familial tension onto her palette, then pulls apart not just the human insects pinned there but the sticky issues of class, race, and sex in which they're ensnared. Comparisons with August Wilson, which keep bubbling up, may be premature — Stick Fly lacks the melding of mundane and miracle that makes Wilson's best works transcendent. And there are more dueling rapiers than dueling harmonicas in the language. But this is a breakthrough contemporary work by a significant talent, most of whose previous plays have pushed off from black history.

Whereas the Huxtables of television fame splashed cutely on the surface of upper-middle-class African-American life, Stick Fly's LeVay family, from their second-home base on Martha's Vineyard, plunge to the murky depths where ambitions, resentments, inadequacies, and secrets lurk. And if a few soap bubbles ascend, along with the regular air variety, well, that's a small price to pay for a play that makes marvelous entertainment of poking old wounds and pressing hot buttons — not just in the social order but in a sextet of characters so smart and smartly drawn that you'd like to take them home (even if you would have to watch them chest-butt each other with their SAT scores).

In Diamond's multiple take on Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, both thirtysomething LeVay sons have brought home significant others to meet the parents. Sweet burgeoning novelist Kent (Jason Dirden) is engaged to bristling Taylor (In the Continuum co-author Nikkole Salter) of the etymological pursuits; smooth plastic surgeon Flip (Billy Eugene Jones) is sporting a white woman, the passionately liberal if patrician worker-with-urban-youth Kimber (Rosie Benton), who is 100 percent WASP but whose swain has insisted to his family that she's Italian. (This leads to choruses of "Buon giorno!" when she steps off her figurative Mayflower into their midst.) Mother LeVay is mysteriously absent, and so is the clan's long-time domestic, who has instead sent her 18-year-old daughter — a sassy family favorite named Cheryl (Amber Iman) — armed with instructions as to where to find the egg cups and a cryptic admonition to ask patriarch Joe LeVay (Wendell W. Wright) whether there isn't something he'd like to tell her.

Both Kenny Leon's direction and David Gallo's set contribute to the tight-quartered, in-your-face element of the LeVays' Edgartown get-together, no matter how airy and cushy its setting. Leon nicely calibrates the Fences echoes without hitting them like a gong. And the cast, led by Salter as the feisty if wounded Taylor and Iman as the equally prickly, equally hurting Cheryl, proves that Diamond wasn't far off when she looked into her glass and decided you could create a cocktail that was equal parts Cosby and cultural anthropology, with a splash of O'Neill.

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