Dec 9, 2011

Mind the Soap

I don't want to rehash my thoughts from my last post, about the way I think we often condescend to our own enjoyment of plays that entertain us, but it was on my mind even moreso with Lydia Diamond's Stick Fly, which I saw a few nights ago. I'd read the play for my profile of Diamond, so nothing in its plot was a surprise, yet I still felt I didn't know where the play was going to go emotionally. I didn't warm immediately to one of the performances (Dule Hill's, if you must know); Kenny Leon's direction is oddly sloppy in a few places, as are a few of Diamond's transitions. Other than that, my playwright companion and I had a great time, and had plenty to talk about afterwards.

My favorite thing about the play, among many, is that it doesn't privilege any one character's experience over another, at least not finally; every one is revealed to be as much of a mess, and as likely to flare up into meanness or pettiness, as any other. My friend had a great analogy which I'll steal: He compared the play's game of class and racial dynamics to rock, paper, scissors. Indeed, so much is going on in any particular scene it felt almost symphonic to me, and the wrenching climax, a scene of father-daughter projection that even the characters acknowledge as a kind of high-stakes drama therapy, seemed totally apt and entirely earned.

What didn't occur to me and my companion was that any of this rich, rangy material was like a soap opera (well, no more than Other Desert Cities, which is admittedly much slicker and, to my mind, an ultimately hollow exercise). Yes, black folks in the audience respond audibly to the story's big twists and reveals; is that what has cued white critics to make Tyler Perry analogies?

I have to agree with my colleague Linda Winer that while this season has been so-so on musicals, it's new American plays that are setting the tone on Broadway (actually, her piece is a year-long wrapup, but the observation holds). Though I find The Mountaintop silly and Other Desert Cities overrated, add these two to Seminar and Stick Fly and you have a quartet of more-or-less meaty American plays worth seeing and talking about. When's the last time that was the case? UPDATE: Though I haven't yet seen them, by most accounts Chinglish and Venus in Fur would fit into this trend, as well. So make that a sextet of new non-British non-musicals on Broadwaya moment worth celebrating (and not only because not all of them will survive the year, most likely).

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