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Theater reviews: Stick Fly, What You Will 

Flipping the script

Black History Month or not, you can watch Lydia R. Diamond's Stick Fly and get the impression we're living in an age when the struggle for civil rights is triumphantly over and that we've crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land of a post-racist America. Or fleetingly, in the Actor's Theatre production through March 7, you might even get the idea that the script has been flipped.

When elder brother Flip LeVay enters his parents' luxurious summer home on Martha's Vineyard, intent on paving the way for the arrival of his new lady love, it's like Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? in reverse. Here the problem is that Kimber is white — a reality so stark that Flip papers it over euphemistically by calling her Italian.

Problem? Kimber's race hardly seems to matter when the urbane Dr. Joe LeVay comes home and meets his sons and their possible mates. No, the frictions that ignite as the weekend unfolds mostly emanate from his younger son, Kent, and his fiancee Taylor. Kent, whom Taylor calls Spoon, has come home with the manuscript for his first novel, already accepted by a publisher. Dr. LeVay, a highly reputed neurosurgeon, is unimpressed and offers to bankroll Spoon toward a respectable career.

Joe has no serious problem with either of his sons' partners, but Taylor brings plenty with her. A brainy entomologist, Taylor is the daughter of a celebrated black cultural anthropologist — but her dad pretty much abandoned her when he divorced her mom, a college prof. So, Taylor has had the benefit of a fine education, but she hasn't been acclimated to the finer things the way Spoon, Flip and Kimber have.

As a result, Taylor feels jealous and antagonistic toward Kimber, which leads to an unexpected blow-up. Talking too much and trying hard to be liked, Taylor also inclines toward taking on household chores such as serving, cleaning up and brewing coffee, which pisses off the young housekeeper, Cheryl, the daughter of the LeVays' longtime cook.

There are other reasons for Taylor to be unnerved, so it's natural to think she will remain the center of attention throughout the evening, perhaps getting into more trouble if she begins crusading on behalf of Spoon, who's reluctant to tell his dad off. But there are also some trashy revelations in this sudsy plot, with half of the folks onstage having sexual relations that could stir up the wrath of the rest.

While the repartee touches extensively on poverty and inner city life, Diamond is less preoccupied with the plight of blacks in white America than she is about how African Americans treat each other — particularly how fathers shirk their parental responsibilities. Intertwining multiple plot threads and skillfully unraveling her characters' secrets, the playwright also does a fine job distributing some highly emotional monologues among her antagonists, with enough bite and humor to convince us this is still a family gathering.

Director Martin Damien Wilkins doesn't get the kind of dramatic lift-off I experienced in Act 1 when I saw the original Broadway production three years ago. Part of the sputtering at Actor's Theatre seemed to come from Douglas A. Welton's shakiness with his lines, a malady no director can cure, but Brandi Nicole Feemster's difficulties with Taylor were a different matter. She wasn't riding the herky-jerky rollercoaster of the fiancee's emotions or connecting convincingly with the other actors on opening night.

The action smoothed out noticeably after intermission, though Wilkins should still demand a brisker pace. Feemster became more likable, and Taylor's tendency to talk too much as a defense mechanism was actually clearer in my second exposure to the script. Welton also became more relaxed and avuncular in Act 2 and stiffened with an effective hauteur when the fireworks began.

Renee Welsh-Noel was Cheryl, the time bomb that goes off deep into Act 2, and I had my misgivings about how she would compare with Condola Rashad, who originated the role to great acclaim. As expected, there was less power in her explosion, yet I also found her to be more childish and vulnerable in the heat of the moment, qualities that are very much to the point.

Rahsheem Shabazz as Spoon, Jeremy DeCarlos as Flip and Moriah Thomason as Kimber all had the same casual, clubby arrogance that would intimidate Taylor. Shabazz could probably be a little older in keeping with all the unsettled knocking around Spoon has done after business school and law school before settling into writing, but he beautifully adds a seething fuse to the sensitivity, tenderness, meekness and rectitude of the younger brother.

DeCarlos is certainly the kind of heartless cad Spoon should pop off against. He radiates the smugness of a successful plastic surgeon, and his coldness toward Taylor — past and present — is no surprise. Thomason, on the other hand, is harder to read as Kimber, probably because of her aristocratic detachment. While Taylor comes through the front door hoping not to blow the chance of a lifetime, Kimber seems to be calculating how much of an emotional investment she should put into a womanizing rogue. So, she skillfully morphs from a patrician princess to be feared and loathed into a girlfriend Taylor can confide in and learn from.

Chip Decker's scenery isn't quite as handsome as his sound design, fashioned from classic cuts of Miles Davis and John Coltrane with a sliver of Thelonious Monk. Yet it's all a well-oiled machine when it runs smoothly. I'm expecting Stick Fly to buzz along at a faster pace in its second week, with fewer bumps along the way.

Shakespeare's tragedies have been the springboard for numerous modern dramas, but watching Wendy Hammond's new What You Will last Saturday night had me searching in vain for a parallel instance of a modern playwright who has tried to capture the spirit of Shakespeare's comedies. This one, commissioned and staged by Davidson College's theater department, was a giddy riff on the Bard's Twelfth Night, taking up the banner of its original subtitle.

There were situations where the women loved by the three men in the cast all loved other people. There was a sequence of scenes, reminiscent of A Midsummer Night's Dream, where one character was chasing another off into the wings. And amid a gathering that included a gay Unitarian, an agnostic, a Mormon, an Orthodox Jew, a Muslim and an atheist, there was one unmistakable Malvolio-like odd duck, the righteous Mormon — undergarments and all — discovering she might be a lesbian.

It all worked surprisingly well with an all-student cast, partly because the once-ubiquitous and now legendary director, Steve Umberger, had his hand on the tiller. Credit also goes to Hammond, who conceived the convocation of varied faiths and sexual orientations as happening at a Deepak Chopra interfaith convention, with texting, blogging and podcasting all running amok. Each one of these roles is custom-made for a college student!

Best of all, the romp turned serious in the final act, just like Twelfth Night — and just when Hammond explicitly referenced her source. Whether it's read at a future nuVoices new play festival at Actor's Theatre or fully staged, I'm confident we'll be seeing this merry, vital and relevant comedy once again.

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