White Man's Burden

Remember when going to the theater felt like an escape from television? Great live theater once offered what so much prime-time TV did not: casts of fascinating characters saying magical, poetic, sometimes shocking lines of dialogue penned by bold young playwrights who wrangled with complex, provocative messages in their work.

Now, HBO has The Sopranos and Oz and Six Feet Under, with some of the best dramatic writing being done in any medium. And theater is left with mush like Spinning Into Butter, which opened last week at Theatre Three.

Watching Rebecca Gilman's two-and-a-half-hour chinwag on racial prejudice is like sitting through a bad TV movie you can't click away from, mute or fast-forward through. The characters are nothing special, the dialogue banal, the plot, such as it is, not only predictable but thoroughly forgettable. You go away from it with nothing but a rolled-up playbill and the hope that nobody else in the half-filled house has bought into its excruciating treatise on political correctness.

Butter wants desperately to be controversial and hard-hitting (the title is derived from the now-taboo story of Little Black Sambo). But here's its big, nasty secret, revealed after hours of sturming and dranging on the topic: A lot of white people just don't like black people.

Shocked? Round up the usual suspects.

In this case, it's a bunch of overeducated white intellectuals at a mostly white liberal arts college in Vermont. There's Sarah Daniels, dean of students, and her colleagues, Ross Collins (a hunky professor Sarah's sleeping with when he's not sleeping around), Catherine Kenney (a fellow dean who's jealous of Sarah's office space) and Burton Strauss (a courtly but slightly doddering older academic).

They're embroiled in a highly charged campus controversy. An African-American sophomore has received a series of racist notes in his dorm room. True to the passive-aggressive academic tendency to turn inward instead of doing the sensible thing, they decide to deal with the situation by "issuing a statement" and holding a "race forum" with the entire student body. And oh, yeah, maybe somebody should call the police.

The victim in the incident, Simon Brick, is never seen in the play. That's a serious sin of omission. The way Gilman writes about him and has the other characters describe him, he's far more compelling a figure than anyone who's actually onstage.

And isn't there something just a mite odd about a play that pretends to seriously address the dilemma of being a "student of color" on a mostly white campus among all-white professors and then leaves that very student out of the action? (See John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation for a wittier, more affecting play on the same subject that includes its main black character.)

What we're left with is a bunch of white folks sittin' around talkin'. And talkin' and talkin'.

When they're not jawing about the racial thing, there's a not-so-believable subplot dealing with Sarah's affair with the lanky Ross, an art professor with a pretentious air and a red silk scarf around his neck. He's dropped her (in an inelegant scene in Act 1, where the romance is first mentioned and then ended almost in the same breath) and taken back up with a younger dancer (also never seen). But he keeps popping back to Sarah's office to complain about the younger woman, which Sarah takes as a sign that she might still have a shot at him.

That their romance isn't believable is a fault of the casting as much as the writing. Amy Mills, as Sarah, is a hard-core, middle-aged perky sort of post-menopausal Sally Field in a bad pantsuit and sensible shoes. Opposite Robert Prentiss as Ross, she emits not a squeak of sexual energy.

Mills pours all her effort into doing a lot of the Big Acting that Dallas thesps seem prone to these days (where, oh, where are the directors who can stifle this egregious behavior?). She gestures wildly and shrieks her lines. Some of her reactions to even lesser moments of anger are so thunderous they might be measured on the Richter scale. This occurs mainly in scenes between Sarah and Ross. Actors Mills and Prentiss have been directed by Jac Alder to carry on all their exchanges looking eye to eye, doing that intently serious active listening that actors do in acting workshops but real people never do when talking to each other.

Come off it, you want to tell them, just take a breath and say the words. Sit back and have a moment. Let the audience catch up. This isn't the Jon Lovitz school of dramatic hysteria here.

But hysteria wins out in Spinning. Toward the end of the play, Sarah finally works herself up to highest of dudgeon and admits to Ross that she came from Chicago to the college in Vermont precisely so she could get away from black people. In an overlong speech about her long-held prejudices, she rants about the scary black guys on the el trains and the noisy, wild-haired students at the other school.

"In the abstract, black people were fine," Sarah says. "In reality, they were so rude."

She riffs on about plantation mentality, paternalism and noble savages. And finally, finally, her big revelation is that after years of studying black lit, she realizes, "I hate Toni Morrison! Her books suck!"

Ah, "suck." What a gorgeous turn of phrase. Was there no other way this well-educated woman might have expressed her thoughts about the shortcomings of Beloved?

Playwright Gilman can shoulder the responsibility for that level of writing, but she cannot be blamed for some of the other words uttered by Mills. The actress sloppily interjects strings of "I mean, I mean" and "but, but, but" into the dialogue throughout the play. She starts sentence after sentence with "Look, I mean...." Gilman didn't type that clutter, and somebody needs to get after Mills and tell her to stop ad-libbing.

The one actor who gets it right is Chris Messersmith as the lowly campus security guard whose job it is to investigate the racist threats and then to apprehend the perpetrator (whose identity is no surprise at all). Messersmith sort of shuffles quietly through his role, subtly offering this or that piece of advice to high-strung Sarah. He's the only underplayer in this cast, and his presence nicely counterbalances all the jittery dithering done by everyone else.

In the end, Spinning into Butter doesn't work because it's too jammed up in white liberal guilt.

Playwright Gilman has overwritten her one-note play, trying to impress with offhand references to Ayn Rand, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Jackson Pollock and Rilke, as though she's showing off her own homework. But to what purpose? In trying to make big statements about how white people should just 'fess up to their ugly thoughts about non-whites, Gilman covers the same territory again and again, restating not too cleverly what most people already know. Racism is wrong. And your point is?

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner