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From White Plains

Theatre Review by Michael Portantiere

Aaron Rossini and Craig Wesley Divino.
Photo by Jacob J. Goldberg.

The tragedy of suicide resulting from anti-gay bullying is eminently worthy of theatrical treatment. From White Plains —a production of the Fault Line Theatre, now on view in the studio theatre space at the Pershing Square Signature Center —fills the bill with writing that evinces great sensitivity and a full, heavy heart.

As the action begins, we see Ethan (Aaron Rossini) and John (Craig Wesley Divino) seated on a couch, staring at a TV screen with their mouths open. Their conversation reveals to us that they've just watched a writer named Dennis Sullivan (Karl Gregory) win an Academy Award for his work on a film titled White Plains, based on the true story of a young man named Mitchell Cole, who during his high school years was mercilessly bullied because he was perceived as gay and who killed himself some time later. The reason for Ethan and John's shocked expressions? Dennis, who apparently was a classmate of theirs at White Plains High (although neither one of them initially remembers him), has used his acceptance speech to identify Ethan - by his full name - as the real-life bully who made Mitchell's life a living hell.

The fallout is swift and major. Pegged as a monster before a television audience of millions, Ethan is put on the defensive in a big way. His cell phone immediately begins to ring and buzz with incoming texts, emails, and phone calls, none of which he takes. As the play progresses, we see his interaction with best bud John grow increasingly strained, and we learn that his relationship with his girlfriend has soured because of his instant notoriety.

Meanwhile, we see Dennis at home with his partner, Gregory (Jimmy King). Dennis' grief over Mitchell's suicide is genuine and still acute many years after the fact. He adamantly refuses to forgive Ethan; on the contrary, he makes an excoriating video in which he rejects an "apology" that Ethan has posted online in a vain attempt at damage control.

Though Gregory is generally supportive of Dennis's cause, he is somewhat put off by the level of his anger. In particular, he questions some of the language Dennis uses in his video ("There were people —for lack of a better word - who persistently and systematically forced Mitchell to hide himself until he forgot who he was..."), wondering if Dennis really wants to go so far as to suggest that Ethan is not a person. Dennis, for his part, has an issue with the fact that Gregory is not "out" to his parents, and the growing friction between the couple is palpable.

The climax of the play is a face-to-face meeting between Dennis and Ethan as they prepare to confront each other on television. (The show isn't named, but the situation screams Oprah or Dr. Phil, or possibly Anderson Cooper.) This is followed by a quietly moving epilogue, a solo scene with Gregory on the phone to his parents, suggesting that they come visit him or vice versa —the implication being that he's belatedly planning to tell them he's gay.

Aside from a tiny bit of overwriting, the play is marvelously well crafted. This is surprising in that, to one degree or another, it was written by committee —i.e., by Michael Perlman in collaboration with the entire cast. With only a very few exceptions, the dialogue has a wonderfully natural ring to it, and the characters' emotional transitions seem organic rather than contrived.

The production's only significant flaw is Perlman's direction, which gives further credence to the widely held opinion that playwrights shouldn't direct their own works. Pacing is way off in certain sections, with stretches of ultra-rapid-fire dialogue punctuated by long pauses. Also, Perlman has instructed or allowed the actors to eschew eye contact at key moments - sometimes to the point of outright weirdness, as when John non-reacts to Ethan's news that he has lost his job and keeps working away at his laptop, or when Dennis non-reacts to Gregory's sudden proposal of marriage and continues to watch television.

Under the circumstances, the performances are all the more impressive. Rossini is superb as Ethan, skillfully allowing us to see the "asshole" (his own word) he was in high school beneath the surface of the fairly decent fellow he has turned out to be. Divino is perfect as John, a sweet guy whose attempt to cope with the revelations about Ethan is complicated by the fact that, as we learn, John himself was bullied as a kid (though not for being gay). King makes Gregory the kind of loving, smart boyfriend we'd all like to have. And though (Karl) Gregory as Dennis sometimes fails to convince, he's deeply moving in the fraught confrontation with Rossini's Ethan, leading one to believe that stronger direction would have helped him greatly in the earlier scenes.

The production values are ultra-simple, but John Eckert's lighting and Chad Raines' sound design are highly effective. Fault Line Theatre deserves great praise for this staging, even as one hopes From White Plains will be handed over to a top-flight director for its next presentation. The play definitely deserves it.

From White Plains
Through March 9
Signature Center at Pershing Square, 480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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