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Vastly more rewarding than Spider-Man, there's still a PG aura to this mighty tale that occasionally cries out for IMAX and Spielberg. But directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris have flawlessly transported this deeply affirmative tale across the pond with a superb cast that never dilutes its essential James Herriot wholesomeness and authenticity – except for one blunder. Most of the folksongs presented by Tim van Eyken on the original cast album have been handed over to a Song Woman, Kate Pfaffl. Even if I hadn't eventually given up on understanding Pfaffl when she strayed from the score's "only remembered for what we have done" mantra, a man's voice would have better captured the soul of the story, whether it's Albert, the valiant soldiers who fought and died, or the indomitable Joey.
Stick Fly (***1/2) – More than a piece of the pie, the LeVay family has a substantial piece of the Vineyard in Lydia R. Diamond's new comedy drama. By opening a window on a black upper crust who haven't achieved wealth via music or sports, Diamond piques our curiosity from the moment we get our first peep at David Gallo's casually patrician set design showcasing the LeVays' spacious living room, kitchen, and rear deck, with a sliver of the beach. Cuing our wonder, Taylor, the daughter of a famed historian, visits Martha's Vineyard for the first time – as the fiancée of the youngest LeVay, Spoon, who has just gotten word that his first novel will be published.
This will no doubt prove to be a disappointment to the family patriarch, Joe, a neurosurgeon looking for a solid yield from the more practical degrees in law and business that he has paid for. Despite her impressive bloodlines and degree in entomology, Taylor worries that she will not be welcomed by the LeVays, because her father abandoned her long ago, so she and her mother haven't been swathed in high cotton.
Having set the table for skirmishes over class and self-determination, Diamond piling on further complications. Older brother Flip is also set to surprise Dad with a new girlfriend, Kimber, an "Italian" who turns out to be very moneyed, self-assured, versed on the dynamics of inner city schools, and white. Ratcheting Taylor's insecurities into an even tighter twist, she and Flip had a passionate one-nighter years ago in Atlanta. If that weren't enough, there's Cheryl, pinch-hitting for her mom as the family housekeeper, learning that she's really the boys' half-sister while setting the table for breakfast.
Yes, it takes a while for Diamond to load up all the reasons that Joe will go off on Spoon, Spoon on Flip, and Cheryl – reinforced by her newfound sibs – on Dad. In the meanwhile, the playwright has Taylor going off on Kimber for no good reason at all – causing Spoon to get pissed – so there's enough percolating to get us through Act 1 before all the fireworks of Act 2. Even then, the conflicts have enough to do with race, class, and parental responsibility to keep the trashiness from devolving into daytime drama.
Directed by Kenny Leon, the men onstage – Dulé Hill as Spoon, Mekhi Phifer as Flip, and Ruben Santiago-Hudson as Joe – seem to be coasting on their LeVay charms, which at least prevents us from pigeonholing Dad as a complete ogre. The women, all outsiders, give more interesting performances. Rosie Benton as Kimber is the friendliest, most open-minded, best-adjusted person in the room, reliably bolstering Diamond's even-handedness, and Tracie Thoms captures Taylor's tightly-wound skittishness without letting go of her lovable vulnerabilities. Condola Rashad (yes, she's Phylicia's daughter), perhaps corrupted by the glowing reviews she received, seemed to think the story was all about her in the early going when the DeVays are lording it over her, but she earned those accolades in Act 2 when she truly was the heart of the drama.
I particularly liked the ambiguity in Cheryl's negative attitude toward Kimber. Was it pure racism, or was the antagonism rooted in jealousy – her unrequited love for Flip? Either way, she'll need to get over it. (Closed on February 26)
Wit (***1/4) – Yes, it's already 13 years since Margaret Edson's drama came out of nowhere to nab the Pulitzer Prize. Many of us thought that Kathleen Chalfant gave the definitive portrait of Vivian Bearing, the John Donne scholar coping with the agonies of stage 4 cervical cancer and the equally excruciating effects of experimental chemotherapy. She had us from the moment she informed us, with professorial crispness and exactitude, "There is no stage 5."