How the Other Half Lives: Maple and Vine Is a Bizarre and Excellent Satire

Marin Ireland in "Maple and Vine." (Joan Marcus)

The rich are different from you and me—but they still have their problems, which may not be so different at all.

That, both halves of it, is the lesson of Stick Fly, a smart, thoughtful and occasionally problematic new play by Lydia R. Diamond about the bonds and secrets among a wealthy black family at its palatial summer home on Martha’s Vineyard. It opened Thursday night at the Cort Theatre in a production directed by Kenny Leon that is well-acted and handsome but less than perfectly convincing.

Dulé Hill and Mekhi Phifer star as the brothers Kent and Harold LeVay, also known as Spoon and Flip, comfortable products of an upper-crust milieu, shuttled among homes in Manhattan, the Vineyard and Aspen, educated at top-notch schools, at ease with the help.

Spoon is the sensitive one, somewhat aimless, possessor of a few graduate degrees, and now, finally, an author with a novel about to be published. Flip is a plastic surgeon and a player, confident and cocky. Each has a new girlfriend: Spoon’s is Taylor (Tracie Thoms), an entomologist—she studies the titular stick flies—to whom he’s newly engaged; Flip’s is Kimber (Rosie Benton), a Wasp who works with inner-city youth—and they’ve  come to the Vineyard for the weekend to introduce the girls to the family.

The house is grand, the girls are impressed and in love, and the kitchen is kept well-stocked by Cheryl (Condola Rashad), a recent high school graduate serving as housekeeper for the weekend, because her mother, Miss Ellie, the LeVay’s longtime maid, is sick. But it soon becomes apparent that tensions are lurking not far below the surface. There’s romantic—or at least sexual—history between Flip and Taylor, his brother’s fiancée. Their father, Joe (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), is a charming bully, especially toward Spoon—and he arrived alone, uncharacteristically without their mother. Taylor was essentially abandoned by her father, a famous black sociologist and author, when he left her mother; she grew up working-class and resentful and can’t quite get a fix on this moneyed world.

These plots all play themselves out in fairly predictable ways—the revelation that Joe is Cheryl’s real father comes as no surprise, nor is it shocking that the resentful Taylor and the entitled Kimber, after feuding, become friends. And it is ham-fistedly schematic that difficult Joe becomes, for Taylor, a stand-in for her own absent father.

But the dialogue is often sharp and fun, and the mostly well-crafted characters make the story consistently interesting. Ms. Rashad is sensational as Cheryl, making the young woman simultaneously wise and naïve, proud and put-upon. Her story is the play’s most compelling, helped by her great performance. Mr. Santiago-Hudson has puckish fun with Joe, using well-deployed pauses and double-takes to show the heart inside this sometimes brutish character, and why his kids are so devoted to him.

Taylor is the least believable character, vacillating between confidence and rage, charm and fury, and Ms. Thoms lacks the nuance to make her character work. And the playwriting too often shows its seams: at least three times, a character walks into a room unnoticed, just in time to overhear a revelation; when Ms. Diamond needs a reason for Cheryl to be in the kitchen when Joe stops in for a bedtime snack, she has the young woman shucking corn—not a typical late-night activity—and then, for no real reason, stopping after two ears to return the rest to the refrigerator.

Still, Stick Fly raises important points about class differences and struggles, and the overlooked ways in which class divisions are now similar to, and in some ways more powerful than, racial ones. Ultimately, the LeVays—like so many in their class—know that they’ll ignore the troubles of this weekend, put them aside to continue leading their happy lives. It’s worth doing the same with the play’s problems, the better to just enjoy it.

In 1955, there wasn’t the Internet, the Civil Rights Act, or the pill. Is it possible that life was better then? Maple and Vine, a bizarre, intriguing and excellent new play by Jordan Harrison that opened last week at Playwrights Horizons, makes an argument that it was.

Katha (Marin Ireland, excellent as ever) and Ryu (Peter Kim, flat by comparison) are a typical, modern, urban couple. She’s a book editor, he’s a plastic surgeon, and theirs is a life of cell phones and iPads, busy schedules and takeout dinners, and an interracial marriage—he’s Japanese American, she’s an all-American blonde—that’s a nonissue. But he’s unfulfilled and she’s in a depression, and that’s when she happens to meet Dean (Trent Dawson), a recruiter for the Society of Dynamic Obsolescence.

How the Other Half Lives: Maple and Vine Is a Bizarre and Excellent Satire