The insular Martha’s Vineyard subculture under the microscope in Stick Fly is worlds removed from the Louisiana-projects milieu of In the Red and Brown Water, but rituals are key in both places and both plays—and signifiers, too. Writer Lydia Diamond, whose poised, privileged characters are busy parsing one another’s rhetorical flourishes and educational backgrounds at Arena Stage, proves every bit as much a cultural anthropologist as theatrical wunderkind Tarell Alvin McCraney, whose dirt-poor characters jockey for bedmates, bragging rights, and pecking-order position at the Studio Theatre.
And if the evening with Diamond’s peevish African-American aristocrats turns out to be the more engaging one, it’s only partly because she’s tripping through the lighter traditions of drawing-room comedy, while McCraney is spinning weightier stories and drawing on the stuff of myth. Kenny Leon’s snappy staging of Stick Fly also has the advantage of a cast that’s hitting pretty much all the right notes at all the right moments, where Serge Seiden’s Red and Brown Water still seemed, at least at the press performance, to be coming to terms with its own rhythms and reach.
Let’s not assume that Leon’s cast has it easier: Bandying semantics over a two-and-a-half-hour span is no cakewalk, and the LeVay clan and their houseguests certainly do like their banter. Black-sheep son Kent (a hugely agreeable Jason Dirden) has brought home his new girlfriend Taylor (a live-wire Nikkole Salter), who’s punishingly bright and tends to get combative when she’s anxious.
So it’s a bummer for them both that paterfamilias Joe (a stately Wendell W. Wright), a brain surgeon, makes Taylor anxious while Kent’s older brother Flip (a swaggeriffic Billy Eugene Jones) likewise gets under her skin.
Then there’s Cheryl (Amber Iman), the no-bullshit daughter of a longtime LeVay family retainer, who’s on hand in her bedridden mother’s absence to keep everyone supplied with cocktails and sandwiches, and Kimber (a wonderfully poised Rosie Benton), Flip’s delicious conundrum of a girlfriend; she’s white, and she’s delightfully unafraid to engage on topics that might seem dangerous in a room full of people already on edge.
They’ll only get more so, as everyone pushes everyone else’s buttons on topics racial, familial, socio-economical, and hierarchical—and as it becomes gradually clear why the matriarch and the maid aren’t on hand this particular weekend.
As her characters negotiate a minefield of complaints and assumptions, surprising grievances and unexpected perspectives, Diamond orchestrates a series of confrontations that range from the honestly agonizing to the embarrassed-for-them entertaining; if the smaller explosions ultimately seem to have more of truth and insight about them than does the final, climactic one connected to the melodramatic spilling of a big LeVay family secret, Stick Fly is still a smart, uncommonly pointed comedy about the manners and the mores of a class most of us are barely aware of.