The setup to Lydia Diamond’s new play Stick Fly follows a comfortable theatrical formula: a well-to-do Black family meets up in Martha’s Vineyard, ostensibly for an ordinary get-together, but in fact to lay themselves bare and hash out decades-old resentments and secrets. Kent “Spoon” LeVay (Dulé Hill), the youngest in the family, shows up with the manuscript to his first novel as well as his entomologist fiancé, Taylor (Tracie Thoms), who happens to have slept, six years ago, with his older brother, Flip (Mekhi Phifer). Flip, in turn, has brought his new squeeze, Kimber (Rosie Benton), a white teacher who minored in African-American studies as an undergraduate. All compete for the attention and approval of the family patriarch, neurosurgeon Joe (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), who has a suspicious relationship with the family maid’s daughter, Cheryl (Condola Rashad). The mother remains conspicuously absent and the result is something like Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, but with Parcheesi instead of whiskey.
Katori Hall begins The Mountaintop by taking a man whose face is plastered all over New York City, a man who is compared to Jesus and Gandhi and who has just biblically bellowed before his final audience, “I’ve seen the Promised Land … Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,” and presenting this lion as a mere human being. As the curtain rises, he asks his companion Ralph Abernathy to buy him a pack of Pall Malls, urinates in a motel bathroom, and gasps at the stench of his own feet. It is an important point—by deifying King, we undermine his struggle while also excusing ourselves for not living up to his standards—so yes, the sound of his piss hitting the toilet bowl is, in its own way, a progressive beat. Ms. Hall also has fun with dramatic irony, so when he reads something he doesn’t like in an advance copy of the next morning’s paper, mumbling, “Over my dead body,” the audience can Ooh with satisfaction; his occasional, derogatory references to “Jesse” also get a bit of comedic mileage.
Chekhov is one of the most difficult modern playwrights to stage. His writing, like Tennessee Williams’, is incredibly flat on the page–lines like “It’s just six years ago father died, and only a month later our baby brother Grisha drown in the river” read as painfully expository–and thus an incredible burden is placed on his actors. Even the most well-intentioned productions can drag on with stultifying endlessness and many of the highly-touted translations still feel stilted and brittle; one wrongly cast actor, one poorly delivered line and the entire thing shatters. Perhaps because of this, when done right, Chekhov can provide an unmatched theatrical experience, a reminder of why we go to the theater in the first place. The Classical Stage Company’s new production of The Cherry Orchard falls into the latter category.