Wednesday, February 18, 2009

White People

By Leah
• well acted • suffers from writing flaws • not terribly surprising

BOTTOM LINE: Interesting but not necessarily moving.

So I'm trying to figure out why I didn't have a stronger reaction to this show, why I didn't come out of the theater viscerally affected.

White People
, written by J. T. Rogers, explores the minds and hearts of three, well, white people through a series of intertwining monologues. First there's Alan Harris, a New York history professor, played by Michael Schulman. The character is earnest and likable, brimming with liberalism, and Schulman brings that to the table in spades. The climax of his character's arc, however, a recounting of an assault and his subsequent reaction, falls a little flat. When you hear him tell his story, yeah, it's disturbing, but it's also really easy to tell that that's what it's supposed to be. It feels sort of like a big neon sign asking, "Isn't this awful and complicated and thought-provoking?" But the truth is, I've seen those complications before, and the character, as he's written, doesn't really illuminate any new bit of humanity in them.

Next we meet Mara-Lynn Doddson, the former homecoming queen turned nobody. The character is a bit of a stereotype - working class girl, missing her former glory, but Rebecca Brooksher plays her with sincere and grounded vulnerability. Though there are some moments which seem pushed, Mara-Lynn's life (which revolves around a rather deadbeat husband and a mentally handicapped son) escapes the maudlin and generally lives in an organic and sypathetic place. The character is perhaps a little too well-spoken for her station in life, an interesting note for a play where one of the primary focuses is how language colors our perception of one another.

The most surprising character is probably Martin Bahmueller (played by John Dossett), the Brooklyn-born lawyer now living in St. Louis. His unapologetic adherence to rules of dress,
conduct, and grammar is something straight out of 1987's "Wall Street." But when his carefully controlled racism is picked up by his 15 year old son, the cracks in the dam let loose truly fresh and surprising emotions.

White People has its flaws, but it manages to steer pretty clear of preachy, which, to me, is a major trap that plays which are specifically "about race" tend to fall into. While it isn't exploring a whole lot that, say, "Crash" didn't go into 5 years ago, it's still a solid piece of theater that'll make you think.

(White People runs through Feb. 22 at the Atlantic Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street, Chelsea. Tickets are $45, to purchase call 212.279.4200 or visit

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