God, how I love that new theater smell. And so far I love just about everything else about the new Hattiloo, too, from the lobby experience to theater seats that don't turn into torture devices halfway through a long show. There's also a lot to love about Stick Fly, Hattiloo's second production in its new digs, although Lydia R. Diamond's promising drama has pacing issues and the same kinds of lighting glitches that have always plagued Hattiloo productions.
It's ironic how Stick Fly aims for subtlety while spelling out all its formal conceits by inserting subtext directly into the mouths of the play's childish but well-educated characters. Angry confrontations are artificial devices, we're told as Kent "Spoon" LeVay, a young, gadfly of means discusses narrative strategies in his soon-to-be published novel. It's a message from the playwright, and expectations should be adjusted accordingly. Likewise, the show's title is explained in detail in a conversation between Taylor, the young entomologist, and Joe, a randy older neurosurgeon. It suggests that audiences might take a more cerebral and less emotional look at the show's characters, like scientists monitoring flies glued to the end of a stick. Get it?
Stick Fly is an inverted Guess Who's Coming to Dinner for a generation that fancies itself post-racial but isn't. It tells the story of two brothers from an affluent African-American family who bring their girlfriends —one black, one white — home for a long weekend where things are said and secrets are exposed.
Director Erma Elzy allows too much time to elapse between scenes, and what should be a superior show oozes along at a somewhat monotonous pace.
Jai Johnson and Emmanuel McKinney are both engaging as young lovers Taylor and Spoon. So too are Hattiloo vet Bertram Williams and Kilby Yarbrough as Flip and Kimber, the play's slightly older interracial couple.
The evening's best moments come courtesy of Venise Settles, who plays Cheryl, the daughter of the family maid whose mother has just dropped a bombshell. Settles is the kind of performer who never has to say a word — everything you need to know can be read in her posture and in her eyes. She's a scene-stealer in a play filled with accomplished performers doing very good work.
Stick Fly is at the Hattiloo through September 14th. Hattiloo.org
The Addams Family had name recognition and an A-list cast. That kept if from being a complete Broadway dud when it opened on Broadway in 2010. Reviews, on the other hand, were justifiably brutal. Ben Brantley described the show as "a collapsing tomb" in his column for the New York Times. "Being in this genuinely ghastly musical must feel like going to a Halloween party in a strait-jacket or a suit of armor," he wrote. "Sure, you make a flashy first impression. But then you're stuck in the darn thing for the rest of the night, and it's really, really uncomfortable." That was truly about the size of it.
By the time The Addams Family hit the road for its first American tour, it was almost a different show. There were new scenes and songs, and everything was much improved. It is safe to say that Theatre Memphis' richly detailed run through one of history's ookiest of musicals is much, much better than what happened on Broadway. From its eye-popping design to a spectacular ensemble and leading actors that are uniformly quirktastic (and clearly having a blast), this is one of the better musicals Theatre Memphis has produced in recent memory. Much better even than Young Frankenstein, which did very well at this year's Ostrander Awards.
Maybe there's something to the idea of being "better off dead." Rob Hanford and Emily Chateau, the sexless love interests from last season's revival of The Music Man are reunited for The Addams Family and generate considerable heat as the ghoulish Morticia and Gomez. It's also a joy to see Wednesday torturing Pugsley, but nothing in this world is better than watching John Hemphill's Uncle Fester professing his love to the moon.
Puppetry and special effects only seal the deal. Expect big lizards, big spiders, and big fun.
The Addams Family is at Theatre Memphis through September 14th. Theatrememphis.org
Forgive me if I can't get very excited about Best of Enemies, a superficial, weirdly sentimental play about American racism in the 1970s. This true story shows how a Klan leader and black civil rights activist moved past their differences to become good friends. Just like Old Hoke and Miss Daisy. And American police departments and black men generally.
The real life Ann Atwater and C. P. Ellis met in 1971 during a series of public meetings related to the court-ordered desegregation of schools. Their story of struggle, loss, and redemption is a readymade movie of the week, full of sound and fury signifying not too much. Even a great cast like the one assembled at Circuit Playhouse can't breath real life into this predictable fable of opposites forced together.
Best of Enemies is a "feel good" story about race in America, reinforcing an idea that the ongoing struggle is one between extreme viewponts, making racism a condition that fades like a '60s-era Polaroid. Only, it's not the Klan's fault that the average net worth of an African-American household is still a fraction that of the average white household. That's the kind of "not racism" that happens in the enlightened world where the bad old ways are something colorblind people only experience in plays like Best of Enemies. That's also the territory where you'll find real life dramas that matter.