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

Written by Jonathan Kalb on . Posted in Posts, Theater.

Into Butter
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


as Charged
Alexander Ostrovsky

Lincoln Theater Festival

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

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.