A comedy of the dysfunctional-family variety, “Stick Fly” offers a fair share of laughter and some enjoyable performances but not much in the way of distinction. While playwright Lydia R. Diamond mixes in intrigue, sex and sociology, the proceedings are rarely surprising and never compelling; the result suggests a second cousin of August Wilson married to Jean Kerr’s stepchild. There is an audience for this piece, as at least five other productions across the country have made clear, but without ticket-selling stars, it’s unclear whether they’ll be able to attract a crowd to the Cort Theater.
The author sets out a typical template. An upper-class family arrives for a long weekend at their country house in Martha’s Vineyard, the grown sons bringing along new girlfriends. The family is black; the girl one of the sons brings home is white. There are two key characters present solely via telephone, and the family’s foundations are exploded by one of those second-act secrets that are telegraphed midway through the first.
With “Stick Fly,” Diamond has attempted a commercial comedy with soapy overtones, but despite the abundance of laugh lines, the first act bogs down with cultural anthropology talk while the second meanders through five scenes. Director Kenny Leon (“Fences”), who successfully staged “Stick Fly” at the Arena Stage in Washington last year, has recast all but one of the roles, but what this play cries out for is a rewrite.
David Gallo’s Vineyard cottage is the sort of place we’d like to move into immediately, with partial walls defining three distinct playing areas that can be used simultaneously. Pop music powerhouse Alicia Keys — the second-billed producer — has composed scene-change music that unfortunately slows down the proceedings.
Ruben Santiago-Hudson (“Seven Guitars”), the one stage veteran in the group, dominates the action with a comical turn as the controlling patriarch of the clan. Tracie Thoms and Rosie Benton contribute detailed portraits of the very different girlfriends; the sons, top-billed Dule Hill and Mekhi Phifer, are given less to work with. Stealing attention is Condola Rashad, who gave a memorable performance as an abused victim in Lynn Nottage’s “Ruined,” and who proves a strong comedienne here.
The title comes from the play’s resident entomologist; in order to study the wing movements of houseflies, you glue them to Popsicle sticks and watch them squirm. That’s what the playwright does to her characters in “Stick Fly.”