Rebecca Gilman's Obvious Spinning into Butter; Innocent as Charged, by the Neglected Alexander Ostrovsky

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Spinning Into Butter By Rebecca Gilman

Rebecca Gilman's Spinning into Butter is a case in point?a play about white people's attitudes toward racism that would probably seem perfectly pungent if tied to a recognizable news event. The plot centers on the earnest but clueless responses of some white college administrators in Vermont to what they think is a racist incident on campus, and also on the slightly less clueless (if conscientious) response of a young dean of students named Sarah Daniels. Daniels is a brightly conceived character with a marvelous motivational premise for frank honesty?pissed off at a colleague who dumped her as a lover, she feels free to say any damn thing she wants to him?and the actress Hope Davis was born to play this role: the quintessential perky portrait of a confidently troubled Caucasian conscience. More's the pity that the play ends up seeming essentially obvious.

The action is set in Belmont College (aka Middlebury College, which Gilman attended for two years), where a black freshman who is never seen onstage receives threatening racist notes on his door. Daniels thinks the matter should be handled privately first, in discussion with the freshman, but (especially since she already called the police) her colleagues are eager to show that "everything is under control." They charge forward with a public forum on the subject, which embarrasses everyone except the self-righteous organizers. Meanwhile, Daniels inadvertently sets in motion her own downfall by asking an angry and captious minority student, Patrick Chibas (Jai Rodriguez), to allow her to bend the truth on his behalf: he says he's Nuyorican and she wants to represent him to the college's board as Hispanic or Puerto Rican to get him a $12,000 scholarship. She never really looks at the human being behind the nomenclature to see whether it's safe to help him.

As both matters come to crisis, the audience watches in disgust?at the institution's callousness, at Patrick's righteous narrowmindedness and ingratitude, at the interpersonal stupidity of all the ostensibly intelligent administrators and the superficiality of their liberalism, at the obtuse refusal of everyone to heed Daniels' advice, and ultimately at her self-destructiveness. She has a long monologue in the second act?superbly delivered?in which she confesses to harboring some racism as a result of living in Chicago and working at a mostly black college. Her ex-lover, an irritatingly p.c.-hip art history professor named Ross Collins (Daniel Jenkins), listens to this in horror. The gist of the supposedly shocking discussion, though, along with its aftermath, is that people of different races should talk openly, honestly and privately with one another ("Public dialogue is never real dialogue"), because it's better to do something rather than nothing about racism.

Gilman took her title from Helen Bannerman's classic children's story Little Black Sambo (recently revised as Sam and the Tigers to remove the racial slur), in which a trickster-child retrieves his clothes from tigers who stole them when the animals fight among themselves and "spin into butter." The "spinning," or confusion, among the Belmont administrators, however, seems ultimately beside the point, because the play's real heart is in Davis-Daniels' self-probing intelligence and deliciously incautious tongue. ("I don't really like dance. Everybody all in tune with their bodies. I think that whole mind/body dichotomy should be given another chance"; "I hate Toni Morrison... Her books suck.") Her culminating wisdom about racism?that members of a mentally divided society need to make special efforts to see one another as unique individuals?should've been where the play started, not where it ended.

The Lincoln Center production, directed by Daniel Sullivan, is crisp, punchy and splendidly cast. It seems to me to cull every last drop of subtlety Gilman's play has to offer. Apart from Davis, Jenkins, Rodriguez, Henry Strozier, Brenda Wehle, Matt DeCaro and Steven Pasquale are all excellent, despite the stereotypical basis of almost all of their roles, and John Lee Beatty's modern-colonial dean's office set is dead-on. For most of the show's two hours, though, I found myself longing for the deeper and more probing irritations of other political "hot button" plays such as Six Degrees of Separation and Oleanna. Spinning into Butter is like an introductory think piece for people who've never thought about these issues before. It's vaguely timely, I suppose, coming on the heels of the recent New York Times series "How Race Is Lived in America," but no play that leaves you hungering for more specificity has really done its work.

Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, 150 W. 65th St. (B'way), 239-6200, through Oct. 28.

Innocent as Charged By Alexander Ostrovsky
Lincoln Theater Festival (closed)

Alexander Ostrovsky was the central figure in the 19th-century Russian theater and the author of more than 50 plays and 20 translations. He is revered as a founding figure of Russian literature and?due to his efforts to establish a serious national theater?as a pathbreaker for Stanislavsky and the Moscow Art Theater. I've never understood why he is utterly neglected in the United States. Very few English translations of his work exist, and those that do are too durably clever and stageworthy to suggest that it's primarily his fault. The recent visit of the Vakhtangov Theater from Moscow with its production of Innocent as Charged, directed by Petr Fomenko, was a rare opportunity to judge the matter for ourselves.

Innocent as Charged begins as a rather typical melodrama about a provincial young woman whose social-climbing lover leaves her for her rich friend, just as their neglected, out-of-wedlock son falls critically ill. Seventeen years pass during intermission, and the woman returns to the town as a famous actress. Her ex-lover, now widowed, has become a rich pillar of society, and the son (whom the woman thought dead) broods and languishes as a poor local actor. It's a marvelously stagy, 19th-century contraption, with all the regret, recrimination and contrived recognition one expects from its genre. The crucial difference is that Ostrovsky writes so sharply and lovingly about theater people, bringing both their tactical childishness and their canny perspective on truth and falsehood shrewdly into his plot, that their thespian self-consciousness reads (today, at any rate) as a proto-Pirandellian metaphor.

Fomenko took this into fine account as well, at least to begin with, staging the first act on an extremely narrow strip of stage with the audience crammed into uncomfortable, backless benches only a few feet away. The actors' outsized gestures, overdone makeup and phony expressions were thus seen from much closer range than usual, and one couldn't tell where irony began and realistic enlargement ended. After an intermission during which the actors sang in the lobby, the action moved to a long rectangular space with the audience on chairs on three sides and various furniture pieces and covered chandeliers suggesting a once-stylish hotel lobby. The actors here were mostly seen from traditional distances, but the company's remarkable skill in playing pretentiousness off sincerity?actors portraying actors, speaking about dissembling?continued and deepened the fascinating uncertainty about what was happening in the plot and how anyone could guarantee its truth.

I enjoyed this production immensely for about two of its three and a quarter hours. By the end, it unfortunately got very draggy, with the whole cast joining in silly, redundant group activities like meandering toasts and drunken dance lines done to circus music. It was an invaluable immersion in an all too foreign classic author, however, superbly acted, and if it succeeds in opening up Ostrovsky's other "theater plays" (there are reportedly many) to American production it will have done itself proud.

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