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White People

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Rebecca Brooksher, Michael Shulman, and John Dossett.
Photo by Joaquin Sedillo.

Racism is like greatness in some ways, if we are to believe J.T. Rogers and his new play, White People, which has just opened at Atlantic Stage 2: Some are born with it, some achieve it, and some have it thrust upon them. And, oh yes, it's a defining characteristic of American society in that it can - and does - affect people of every social background.

Were this 1960 or, heck, even early 2008, this message might have an easier time gaining traction than it currently does in this one-note, monologue-exclusive examination of overt, covert, and reluctant discrimination. But the election and inauguration of Barack Obama has upped the ante for outings like this one, as a copious collection of the new president's quotes in the show-opening audio montage makes clear. The rules have, once and forever, changed, so the dusty old games Rogers plays here aren't as entertaining or enlightening as they might have once been.

As its title suggests, the play investigates race insofar as it affects Caucasians in the United States - or at least three. Alan Harris (Michael Shulman), a New York City professor, can't shake his fixation on the spunky black girl who's the rising star of one of his 101 classes. Mara Lynn Doddson (Rebecca Brooksher), a poor woman in Fayetteville, North Carolina, is forced to trust an Indian doctor to give her son some potentially life-saving brain surgery. Martin Bahmueller (John Dossett) is a St. Louis power-executive who believes that language - or the lack of it - is the primary determiner of both class and success.

Events tread predictable courses as each must reexamine their words and attitudes in light of the tainted personalities and shaded hatred they show the world and their children. The notion of what you pass on to the next generation, whether by way of something you did or felt or said or didn't say, is central: By the end of the play, when a handful of lives have been obliterated and only a few morose souls are left behind, it's obvious that Rogers thinks the most dangerous and easily imparted lessons are the ones that are emphasized least.

But even in chasing that goal, Rogers barely pierces the skin of any of his characters. They either have an overinflated sense of self-awareness (Alan) or none at all (the other two), and thus have no easy time either articulating or justifying their ways of thinking. For any play that contains all speeches and no action, words are critical, and this trio's reliance on what they don't say does not make for particularly persuasive arguments. If the breadth of the characters' personalities allows for a sprawling vision of American prejudice, the dearth of dramatization of conflict arising from it makes the play feel as distracted, distant, and artificial as a faded newspaper column from the early Civil Rights Era.

Director Gus Reyes and his cast members, however, don't let the premise's flabbiness prevent them from presenting a taut evening. The pacing, between the scenes as well as within them, could not be more jolting or cinematically pointed. Dossett, too, is excellent, investing his harangues about subjects as dire as clothes, typographical errors, and political correctness with the same Martin-explains-it-all-for-you verve he brings to his revelations about his slowly derailing 18-year-old son. Brooksher is brightly polished as the openly hateful Southern mother, even though her role is so strewn with White Trash that it scarcely lets her avoid clich├ęs. Shulman makes for a perfect, tweed-jacketed liberal academic: scolding, unconsciously judgmental, and low-key to a fault.

The play itself could be described in the same terms, as it's as eager as Alan to find pat explanations for complex issues. The intolerance Rogers employs for Alan, Mara Lynn, and Martin might be solid theatrical shorthand, but it says nothing about a subject that is once again on most people's minds and on everyone's lips. The hypersensitive could undoubtedly point to the events described in Rogers's play as demonstrating how far we have yet to go, but the off-the-shelf familiarity of every aspect of White People makes it feel like it's really only standing still.

White People
Through February 22
Atlantic Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street between 8th & 9th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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