The setup of Lydia R. Diamond’s Broadway debut, Stick Fly, sounds like a BET-ready version of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. A well-heeled, hyper-educated family is gathering in the matriarch’s Martha’s Vineyard estate for a late-summer weekend. Playboy plastic surgeon Flip (Mekhi Phifer) is bringing his new squeeze, Kimber (Rosie Benton), an inner-city schoolteacher who’s decidedly white — though he amusingly tries to claim she’s Italian. His brother, aspiring novelist Kent (Dulé Hill), is bringing his grad-student fiancée, Taylor (Tracie Thoms), whose innate insecurity is deepened when she realizes that she’s seen Flip before (uh-oh). Both sons are anxious about seeing their demanding, often disapproving parents — though neurosurgeon Joe (Ruben Santiago-Hudson) mysteriously arrives without his wife. And hovering around the action is Cheryl (an impressive Condola Rashad), the college-bound daughter of the family’s housekeeper who’s filling in for her ailing mother.
Diamond has imagined an appealing group of characters, and in quieter moments there’s a refreshing naturalness to the dialogue — particularly in a drunken Scrabble game between the brothers and their women in the first act. But then she’s jerry-rigged her plot with a series of increasingly soap-operatic revelations and confrontations — some of which frankly strain credulity. (One character learns a life-changing fact in an offhanded phone call.)
Director Kenny Leon keeps the action moving at a fairly brisk pace (except during scene breaks, which are needlessly prolonged to allow for more bars of producer Alicia Keys’ soulful but repetitious incidental score). But there are occasional lapses in naturalism, as some of the cast (Thoms in particular) edge toward a broader, more sitcom-style approach to the material.
In the end, Stick Fly sometimes seems as insecure as some of its characters about its place in the world. It hints at a family drama worthy of August Wilson or Lorraine Hansberry, with flashes of insight into the contemporary African American experience. But too often it settles for raised voices and shocking twists — and the gasps and clucks that they’ll elicit from the audience. There’s a skill to crafting such entertainments, to be sure, but Diamond has the potential to write plays that do much, much more. B?
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