The “issue” play makes a comeback with “Spinning Into Butter,” the highly anticipated Gotham debut of playwright Rebecca Gilman, whose work has been acclaimed in prior London and Chicago outings. Gilman’s subject, as New York theatergoers will know by now, is the latent racism that may lurk in the liberal hearts of — well, people like New York theatergoers! It’s a potent topic, and the playwright explores it with an admirable boldness as well as a nice leavening of humor. She is fortunate in having the terrifically appealing, unfailingly sensitive Hope Davis playing her (anti-?) heroine, the do-gooder college dean who reveals some disturbing impulses lurking beneath the porcelain veneer of a liberal conscience. Ultimately, however, Gilman’s play may be more successful as a vessel of inquiry than a work of art. Its pointed situations feel manufactured rather than authentically observed, its characters conveniently typed rather than fully imagined. Nevertheless, it will be provoking heated conversations, not to mention awkward moments, in the Lincoln Center subway stop for some time to come.
The play begins as a softly barbed satire of political correctness in the insular environment of a small liberal arts college in Vermont, where Sarah Daniels (Davis), dean of students, is having a very bad day. In the opening scene she’s valiantly but gently trying to maneuver around the cultural sensitivities of a minority student in order to help him secure a $12,000 scholarship.
Patrick Chibas (Jai Rodriguez) is Nuyorican, and doesn’t take kindly to Sarah’s suggestion that, for the sake of expediency, she be allowed to label him either Hispanic, Latino or even, heaven forbid, Puerto Rican, in order to simplify the process for the “not culturally sensitive” members of the Belmont scholarship advisory board. The truculent Patrick is eventually persuaded to compromise, but Sarah’s victory will be a short-lived one.
Still more disturbing, one of the college’s few black students has become the target of vicious racial threats in the form of anonymous notes pinned to the door of his dorm room. While Sarah pleads for calm thinking and suggests that the student in question be consulted before any action is taken, her faculty colleagues begin forming committees and calling for campus meetings with ill-disguised glee.
“We have to be pro-active on this,” says the pompous, posturing Dean Burton Strauss (Henry Strozier). “We must make it known, loud and clear, that this sentiment is not Belmont.”
Sarah’s ex-boyfriend Ross (Daniel Jenkins), an art professor, echoes the high-handed earnestness: “Some racist is running loose on campus and I would wager that this idiot is very much like all our other students in appearance and manner and class, and that’s what we need to reveal. That racism isn’t somebody else’s problem. It’s our problem.”
As Gilman makes pointedly and amusingly clear, beneath the faculty’s fervid exhibitions of empathy and outrage lies a patronizing attitude toward the students in general, indifference to the feelings of the persecuted student in particular and a self-serving desire to exploit the incident for their own ends.
But even the students aren’t above manipulating the situation for their own purposes: a walking, talking Bruce Weber photograph named Greg Sullivan (Steven Pasquale) decides to start a group called Students for Tolerance — just in time to get it on his law school application.
Only Sarah seems immune from the taint of specious, pointless grandstanding (and only Sarah, in truth, is depicted in more than two dimensions, despite uniformly fine work from director Daniel Sullivan’s expertly chosen cast).
In gently withering tones, she eviscerates the forums and their faculty sponsors: “All you do is talk about racism and then you heave this collective sigh of white guilt and then everybody feels better and then they drive downtown in their Saabs and buy sweaters,” she says.
The intelligence, wry humor and touching vulnerability of Davis’ excellent performance draws all our sympathy toward Sarah’s troubles, which increase when young Patrick turns against her after his financial aid package is jeopardized by the scholarship he’s won.
But just when the embattled Sarah has thoroughly endeared herself to the audience, Gilman audaciously pulls the rug out from under us. In a startling second-act scene that has become the centerpiece of discussion surrounding the play, Sarah calmly reveals to Ross that her sympathetic interest in her minority charges is a fraud, a valiant but failed attempt to atone for — and to cure — a deeply felt racism that only seems to grow as her proximity to black people has increased.
She speaks of a turning point in her education, when it was pointed out to her that a “desire to help minority students doesn’t have anything to do with a sense of justice or fair play. Instead it stems from your ‘plantation mentality.’ Your paternalism.”
Fighting against this taint, Sarah pursued a career as an administrator at a primarily black school, after due time spent in self-flagellation for her guilt by proxy for all white crimes against blacks. But the plan backfired: “Before I was paternalistic. Now, I’m fully aware that black people have agency and are responsible and can help themselves, but I think they don’t because they’re lazy and stupid.”
She later describes a conscious process of elimination in choosing a seat on the subway. “First I’d look for a seat next to a white woman. And then a white man. And then a black woman, and then, last choice, a black man … If the only seats were next to black men wearing big puffy coats, then I would just stand.”
As the audience is set squirming, presumably wondering how their own subway sensitivities, thus codified, would sound, Ross helpfully trots out the standard “liberal” retorts. When Sarah talks of her fear and anger at black students who “were loud and belligerent” and would push her aside in the hallways, he dutifully (and somewhat preposterously) pipes up, “The way they’ve been pushed aside all their lives.”
Gilman raises a host of interesting issues with Sarah’s frank speech. Audaciously mixing the oft-thought-but-unsaid with the unspeakable, she disturbingly suggests that the racial divide is so deeply imprinted in the American psyche that even the most well-meaning efforts to cure it are doomed to fail.
But are Sarah’s revelations in keeping with the character we’ve come to know, or indeed with our own knowledge of the nuances of human feelings on this sensitive subject? Not really. In seeking to air her bold theoretical ideas, I think Gilman ultimately sacrifices a fair portion of her character’s authenticity, and thus her play’s right to be seen as a truthful vision of the complex emotional territory it’s exploring.
As the sensible young woman of the first act, trying to navigate the dangerous waters of political correctness with sensitivity and a dash of humor, Sarah is entirely and appealingly human. As the sensational soul-baring figure of act two, she becomes something else: a device to prick the audience’s conscience, a tangle of potential op-ed subjects dressed up in Banana Republic duds, even a white-skinned monster from the world of Neil LaBute.
But if Gilman is ultimately guilty — intentionally or not — of distorting and simplifying the truth of her characters for the sake of increasing the play’s thematic (and comic) potency, it’s only fair to conclude by commending her very real gifts: a natural ear for the way her diverse characters talk, a deft satiric wit and an ability to construct a viable, engaging drama around a complex issue.
Regardless of the New York reaction to “Spinning Into Butter,” the upcoming Manhattan Theater Club production of Gilman’s play “Boy Gets Girl” promises to be another significant addition to the theater season. A promising career is well under way.