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December 9, 2011

TT: Guess who's coming to Martha's Vineyard

In today's regularly scheduled Wall Street Journal drama column, I review two New York premieres, Lydia R. Diamond's Stick Fly and Alan Ayckbourn's Neighbourhood Watch. Here's an excerpt.

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production-1.jpgOne of the most exciting things that a playwright can do is to show you an unfamiliar way of life. A play that succeeds in doing so can be forgiven any number of theatrical sins. "Stick Fly," in which Lydia R. Diamond puts America's black upper class onstage, fills the bill on all counts. Yes, it's a mess, but a fascinating one, well directed by Kenny Leon and performed with total persuasiveness by his ensemble cast, and the best parts are so good that you'll be glad to forgive Ms. Diamond when she goes wrong.

The setting is the posh Martha's Vineyard summer home of the LeVays. Save for the fact that they're black, the LeVays seem like just the sort of people whom you'd expect to have a posh Martha's Vineyard summer home. Joe (Ruben Santiago-Hudson) is a neurosurgeon whose two sons, Flip (Mekhi Phifer) and Spoon (Dulé Hill), are pursuing similarly class-specific careers (Flip is a plastic surgeon, Spoon a first-time novelist who's still trying to "find himself"). They have a maid (Condola Rashad), collect art, play Parcheesi and drink a lot. As the play opens, both young men bring their girlfriends (Rosie Benton and Tracie Thoms) home for the first time. Neither one is quite what Joe expected. Taylor (Tracie Thoms), Spoon's girl, is an earnest graduate student who is ill at ease among the rich, while Kimber (Rosie Benton), Flip's well-heeled companion, is--big surprise--white....

As this description suggests, "Stick Fly" feels like two related plays that have been woven loosely together. In the "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" part, Ms. Diamond's wholly original subject matter is at war with her been-there-done-that plot. Once she finally gets around to springing Joe's surprise (which isn't all that surprising--you'll see it coming midway through the first act) on the audience, the dramatic stakes go up, and "Stick Fly" shakes off its play-safe trappings and starts taking chances....

Neighbourhood-Watch.-007.jpgAlan Ayckbourn's politically flavored plays tend not to get done in America. All credit, then, to 59E59 Theatres' annual Brits Off Broadway festival for showing us a different side of Mr. Ayckbourn with his own crisp, tidy staging of "Neighbourhood Watch," a darkish comedy about the coming of fascism to a middle-class suburb.

The characters in "Neighbourhood Watch," terrified by urban unrest and dismayed by the seeming unwillingness of the police to do anything about it, vote to take matters into their own hands and turn their once-cozy neighborhood into a gated community. As is Mr. Ayckbourn's wont, things get out of hand, and before you know it, the Bluebell Hill Development has become a prison camp...

"Neighbourhood Watch" falls short of Mr. Ayckbourn's usual high standards in two ways. Not only do its disparate parts fit somewhat awkwardly together, but it's more than a little bit trite for him to suggest that the authoritarian impulses of Martin and Hilda (Matthew Cottle and Alexandra Mathie), the ever-so-genteel Hitler and Eva Braun of Bluebell Hill, arise from their sexual inhibitions. Even so, "Neighbourhood Watch" is both funny and (mostly) smart...

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Read the whole thing here.

Posted December 9, 2011 12:00 AM

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