PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Stick Fly — Entomologist on a Hot Tin Roof

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Stick Fly — Entomologist on a Hot Tin Roof
Meet the first-nighters at the Broadway opening of Lydia R. Diamond's family comedy Stick Fly.

Ruben Santiago-Hudson; guests Taraji P. Henson, Jaleel White and Phylicia Rashad
Ruben Santiago-Hudson; guests Taraji P. Henson, Jaleel White and Phylicia Rashad Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN


Stick fly, as any of us entomologists can tell you, is a way we have of tracking the flight patterns of fast-flying insects: by gluing a stick to them. Lydia R. Diamond's use of this term for the title of her first Broadway play, which bowed Dec. 8 at the Cort Theatre, is quite clever and completely apt.

No flies are hurt during this production, but plenty of bruised egos and frayed nerves result from exposure to a professional entomologist in the house over a noisy and decidedly newsy three-day summer weekend at Martha's Vineyard.

Her name is Taylor (Tracie Thoms), and all those years spent inspecting insects under a microscope have given her an unfailing flair for alienating people — bugging them, if you must — in record time, even when she's shooting for her best-behavior mode. As they used to say about Jayne Mansfield, the girl can't help it.

As designed by the always-thorough and fun David Gallo, this summer place has the look — and wears the casually expensive bric-a-bric — of the rich and famous. It belongs to an affluent African American family, although the lady of the manor who inherited it is (for reasons entirely too complicated to go into) mercifully M.I.A. The only other thing missing is a sign that says "Herman Cain Slept Here." Patriarch of the place is Joe LeVay (Ruben Santiago-Hudson, a top-level neurosurgeon and all-round stick-(fly)-in-the-mud who spends his time, not un-wisely, tuning out the turbulence around him. Most of it is Taylor-made, but two overlapping love-triangles also surface — and this is a small cast of characters.

Both LeVay sons are present, with prospective partners in tow. Flip (Mekhi Phifer), a chip off the old block and plastic surgeon, has invited Kimber (Rosie Benton), a Caucasian he prefers to identify as an Italian. Spoon (Dulé Hill), the mama's boy and sensitive novelist, is elected the Taylor-trainer. And let's not forget — although the characters do — the maid-for-the-weekend, Cheryl (Condola Rashad), who's subbing for her mama, the regular help.

Comedy and conflict are the games of the day, with Parcheesi and Scrabble finishing a distant second. Diamond keeps her characters hopping with a full arsenal of zingers and stingers. It has to be said the opening-night crowd had a happy ride, thanks to director Kenny Leon. Grammy winner Alicia Keys punctuated the proceedings with musical doodling for scene changes — and paid for the privilege, pitching in with lead producer Nelle Nugent.

[flipbook] Funniest sight of the night came after the play when staid, seasoned first-nighters lined up along West 47th Street to be fitted for, arguably, their first after-party wristbands — yellow Stick Fly strips that gained them admission to the split-level merriment inside The Copacabana. After press grilling and paparazzi popping on the second floor, celebs and creatives marched upstairs for an even louder bash.

Director Leon was taking bows for bringing his second Broadway-debuting playwright to the fore this season — Diamond follows The Mountaintop's Katori Hall — and he hopes to import more. "I believe in the original-theatre movement," he admitted, "and a lot of these writers are out there. Lydia has been around for many, many years — in places like Chicago and Atlanta and Boston.

"I directed Stick Fly in Boston and at Arena Stage in Washington, DC, and I've read a lot of her plays. She's a talented woman. It's great to hear the voices of the Katori Halls, the Lydia Diamonds, the Lynn Nottages of the world. They're not great just because they're African-American writers. They're great because they're great writers, and I want to see more of that on Broadway."

He knew right away Stick Fly needed to be in that number. "I was attracted to this particular play because it had a perfect balance of humor and drama," he said. "Plus, she put those words in the mouths of [the] African-American upper-class. We never see stories about them. I don't think we ever have before. I think it's revolutionary. I think it's a game-change. It was a great way to share with the world that they're no different than you are. This is a very universal play about family, and this beautiful cast pulled off something that is hardly ever done. Usually, something is very funny or very sad. With this play, you're laughing one minute and crying the next."

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Leon, who coaxed some incidental music for his Fences revival from Branford Marsalis, resulting in a Tony nomination for Marsalis and a second Leon-Marsalis collaboration (The Mountaintop), couldn't help crowing about bringing Keys to the Broadway table. "I worked on her 'I Am' tour a few years ago, so once I knew she was on the producing team, I knew I was going to beg her to do the music. More and more in the plays I do, I want to engage artists who don't normally come to the stage. It's important for Wynton Marsalis, Bradford Marsalis, Alicia Keys — those people to lend their talents here because those are the best musical talents in this country — and why shouldn't they do stage?" A slight media-adjustment is ahead for Leon: "I'm doing the made-for-television remake of Steel Magnolias. We're doing an all-black cast, with Sony Pictures and Lifetime. Neil Meron and Craig Zadan are producing. We're casting right now. It'll be six major African-American stars, and you'll know 'em all."

Sporting what looked like real diamonds, playwright Diamond gave off a lovely post-show glow. "I appreciate that the play resonates with audiences," she said. "I appreciate that so many people from so many different walks of life and so many races and genders say that they feel and see their family in it, and they feel and understand the emotion and relate to it. That feels good, that I hit a human chord."

The laughs weren't bad, either — all night long. "It's always good for a writer to be able to hear people laugh and take their breath in."

She wrote Stick Fly for some personal comic relief from a heavy-duty drama she had already started, much the way Nottage wrote By the Way, Meet Vera Stark to counteract her Pulitzer Prize-winning Ruined. "I wanted this to be the yang to the yin of the other play. It balanced out emotionally. The other play is called Voyeur to Venus, and it's about Saartjie Baartman, 'The Hottentot Venus.' Both of these plays premiered in Chicago at the same time, actually."

And will New York see the other play? Diamond brightened at the thought and then went for coy: "Oh, I would like that. I would like that very much. Let's do that." Santiago-Hudson was taking his first patriarch role in stride. "That means I've had a career, right?" he shrugged. "There's a lot about this man that's not on the page, and for me to paint those corners in is what my challenge was. I love the fact that this is not about anything other than human beings in a family just trying to coexist."

Rosie Benton
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

He pondered if he had ever played such a remote, unreachable character before and then came up with Julius Caesar. "Caesar's a harder man than this. This man is trying to figure out how to function with the things we discover and reveal in this play, that's all. He's a good man. He has taken care of every responsibility that he has had. He's not always accessible, but he's responsible. That's what I make sure rings true."

The rarified, high-on-the-hog lifestyle of the LeVays seems worlds removed from the actor's August Wilson roots. "In a way — and then, in a way, no," he remarked tentatively. "It's still us telling our stories, revealing ourselves. The thing is, now, Broadway audiences have an opportunity to embrace us dealing with our own issues, and not issues about what other people have inflicted on us. These are our own issues. This could be a Korean family, a Jewish family or a German family."

Benton, the lone white on the premises (and a ringer for Kate Baldwin as well), said she can sense audience-shifts about her character. "I think that Lydia has crafted Kimber in a way where in the first act you think something about her and then slowly change your opinion in the second act. That's really fun to do because I can hear the audience come onto my side." She invented a back story to make the character go: "I have this whole idea that Kimber went to a boarding school and was sort of a badass for a while, so she learned how to lie and get herself out of things."

Her choice of LeVay sons, Flip, isn't the audience's choice — and that is just fine with Phifer. "That means I'm playing the part well," he said, happily leaving the sympathy vote to his younger brother. "What I love about Flip is he has no filter. When he's thinking something, he says it and doesn't really think about the consequences."

Spike Lee, who was in his corner on opening night, started Phifer's career by casting him as the lead in "Clockers." Only now is the actor getting around to Broadway. "It's absolutely different," he said emphatically. "I've never done a play before — any play — but I'm having a great time. My cast is wonderful, everybody has been so gracious and giving, and the audiences seem to love it, so I'm having a blast."

Brother Spoon — and Hill will tell you how he got that nickname if you inquire — is, said the actor, "on a journey of self-discovery. Everybody in the play is, but he's really at a point where he always fought to get this intangible thing from his dad and is now ready to say, 'I have to own myself.' That's empowering when you get to where you say, 'I'm just going to be me and walk my path, and it is what it is.'"

Hill gets the most romantic line of the evening and delivers it to a momentarily tamed Taylor: "Life's going to be a lot easier for both of us if you'll just accept that I'm not leaving." It actually brings "ahhs" from the audience.

Condola Rashad
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Thoms, actress that she is, wears Irritant of the Evening like a flag. "Taylor is a dream role," she contended. "She's so complicated and quirky and funny and bizarre and strange and lovable. She's different every night. I find new things about her. "I had a moment where I said, 'Oh, my God, I want people to like me,' then I realized Taylor and I are similar in that way. I just want people to like me, but I also want my point-of-view to be heard, and my point-of-view overrides my need to be liked.

"Yes, she can be very, very irritating because she cannot bite her tongue, but I think there's something beautiful in Taylor in that she's the one who wears her heart on her sleeve at all times. …I love that about her because I bite my tongue all the time. Taylor has a lot to say because she feels a lot."

The smartest and sanest character on stage is the one waiting on everyone with Job-like patience, Cheryl. "I love the honesty of this character," admitted Rashad, "that she's strong and tender at the same time — I love that. There's something that touches me deeply that I'm playing her because I feel that there are a lot of women who have great spirits and don't often get to say what they want to say, so it's an honor for me to go up on that stage and say what it is that they want to say."

Her mother, Phylicia Rashad, led the big parade of first-nighters, stopping in front of the theatre to give Leon a big hug — as well she should. (He directed her to a Tony for the 2004 revival of A Raisin in the Sun, and now he was steering her daughter through a world light years removed from Lorraine Hansberry's.)

Atlanta's ex-mayor, Andrew Young, headed the contingent that flew in from Big A. "We must have 15, 20 people up from Atlanta," he estimated. "We wouldn't miss it for anything. It's got great word-of-mouth all the way coast to coast." Director Peter DuBois was still beaming from the raves he earned for Off-Broadway's Sons of the Prophet, the Stephen Karam play that's on the brink of stepping up to Broadway. "A tiny army of people is determined to make that happen," he said, "but right now there's a theatre shortage," so he'll while away his time restaging for London's West End the Zach Braff play he did last summer at Second Stage, All New People. "We felt the first time around Zach should just focus on the play, but now he's playing the lead. Rehearsals begin next month. We'll start in Manchester, go to Glasgow and get to the West End on Feb. 27."

Glittering up the scene further were Tracee Ellis Ross of the "Girlfriends" series, Omar Benson Miller, Radio Golf's John Earl Jelks, Malik Yoba, linebacker Cato June and wife Nicole, Shrek's Daniel Breaker, "Psych" duo James Roday and Maggie Lawson, "Good Morning America" host Robin Roberts, record producer Swizz Beatz, Pulitzer Prize playwright Nilo Cruz, Tarji P. Henson, composer Ervin Drake, Joe Sirola with his signature homegrown rose, Gayle King and Jaleel White.

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