The land mine that is race comes explosively to life for one scene of "Spinning Into Butter," which is just as well, since Rebecca Gilman's widely traveled play -- now being given a solid British premiere at the Royal Court -- is otherwise an exasperating, if well-intentioned, con.

The land mine that is race comes explosively to life for one scene of “Spinning Into Butter,” which is just as well, since Rebecca Gilman’s widely traveled play — now being given a solid British premiere at the Royal Court — is otherwise an exasperating, if well-intentioned, con. That may not matter in London, where critics are likely to be impressed by any American writer who can toss words like “aestheticize” into a script while proving mostly to the imitative-Mamet manner born. But there’s a far more wounding play waiting to be wrought from the same material than Gilman has bothered to pen here, that now-celebrated second act tirade from her protagonist notwithstanding. At that point, “Spinning Into Butter” actually looks as if it will flare up into the searing play of ideas it wants to be, before lapsing back into ready-made posturing that may leave some audience members rolling their eyes.

The play first came to attention 18 months ago at the smaller studio space of Chicago’s Goodman Theater, six months or so after an earlier Gilman script, “The Glory of Living,” had an award-winning London stand at the Royal Court’s Theater Upstairs, now her home once again.

And there is something commendable — not to mention of more than passing interest to overseas observers — in a young American dramatist who writes both about the wrong side of the tracks (in the white trash environs of “Glory”) and about defiantly politically incorrect attitudes in her current outing here. (A subsequent Gilman play, “Boy Meets Girl,” has an imminent New York bow at the Manhattan Theater Club.)

So it’s with frustration more than anything else that one responds to a potentially incendiary text that shoots itself in the foot nearly as frequently as it lobs ideological grenades at the audience.

“I’m a person, too, you know,” we’re told after the intermission in a none-too-fortuitous remark that nails the real shortfall of this play. Gilman, in fact, hasn’t written people; instead, she sends so many human pawns moving shiftily through an academic milieu comprised in equal measure of aggrieved sensitivities and ceaselessly apologetic smiles.

Nor is her (fictional) campus called Belmont for nothing. That’s the place at which Shakespeare’s Portia, in “The Merchant of Venice,” presides as heiress, except that in “Spinning Into Butter,” it isn’t simply the quality of mercy that is strained.

By now, the plot specifics of the play must be pretty well-known: the seemingly sympathetic (white) dean — Emma Fielding’s Sarah Matthews — newly arrived at a liberal New England college who finds herself caught in a racial cross fire in which, we discover belatedly, she herself colludes. A mixture of over-earnest sensitivities on the one hand and thinly submerged resentment and fear on the other, Sarah is the sort of well-meaning Everywoman whose apparent sunniness is easily scraped away to arrive at the sinisterness beneath. And in the play’s one lasting scene, Gilman and her particularly alert English interpreter, Fielding, deliver up a truly daring fusillade of racial suspicion and bile that should leave spectators here, as they must have done in the U.S., scarcely able to breathe.

Cunningly, Gilman keeps offstage the focus of the play’s politicized bonfire — the black student, Simon Brick, who is the recipient of the hate mail that sets the plot in action. (In an odd coincidence, the play opened in London the day before the city’s Evening Standard newspaper carried a disturbing front-page story about an absolutely comparable campaign, this time conducted by homophobic London policemen against their gay colleagues.)

In Simon’s absence, Gilman serves up a tiresome cross section of Sarah’s colleagues as well as a far too neatly contrasting pair of students — a Connecticut WASP, Greg (Jordan Frieda), who becomes an advocate for racial tolerance, and a Nuyorican scholarship student, Patrick (Mido Hamada), who ensnares a progressively panicky Sarah in one verbal trap after another. (In Cooke’s deft production, the scene-change music becomes more agitated in accordance with the action.)

“Spinning Into Butter” is at its best capturing the frayed nerve ends that increasingly mark out academe, while leaving open-ended the chilling possibility that Simon’s fate could be one black man’s response to a lifetime spent internalizing white rhetoric (for which, read abuse). And yet, for every jolt the play offers — is it racist to dislike Toni Morrison’s fiction or simply a question of taste? — it posits two or three thinly disguised authorial bromides, whether Sarah’s ex-lover (Robert Bowman, trapped in a preposterous role) is inquiring whether “the personal is political” — lest we’ve missed the point — or the incipient do-gooder, Greg, is admitting of the need for a racial dialogue: “It’s hard,” he says, throwing a sop to audiences who don’t like their upset to go unassuaged, “but it’s important to try.”

If the play backs away from the same confusion it claims to anatomize, those conflicts are fully apparent in Fielding’s blazing performance. An alumna of London’s original “Arcadia,” this terrific actress doesn’t attempt to soften Sarah or in any way justify her, her speech rhythms as fast and nervy as, at other times, they become staccato, as if surprised by her own words. And when her good cheer cracks open to let out the beast that is caged within, “Spinning Into Butter” sidesteps its all too predictable self-flagellation and comes stirringly, unsettlingly, into life.

Spinning Into Butter

Royal Court Jerwood Theater Upstairs, London; 72 seats; £12.50 ($19.50) top

Production

A Royal Court Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Rebecca Gilman. Directed by Dominic Cooke.

Creative

Sets and costumes, John Stevenson; lighting, Johanna Town; sound, Paul Arditti; assistant director, Joseph Hill-Gibbins. Opened, reviewed Jan. 9, 2001. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.

Cast

Sarah Matthews - Emma Fielding Patrick Chibas - Mido Hamada Ross Collins - Robert Bowman Burton Strauss - David Horovitch Dean Catherine Kenny - Susan Engel Mr. Meyers - Fred Ridgeway Greg Sullivan - Jordan Frieda
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