Rebecca Gilman is a playwright whose most memorable dramatic moments occur when her protagonists think out loud. In her play “Boy Gets Girl,” for example, a woman being stalked by a would-be-lover deconstructs the popular culture as it relates to male seduction. In “Spinning Into Butter,” which is receiving its Southern California premiere in a solid production at Laguna Playhouse, the aspiring piece de resistance is a monologue in which our supposedly sympathetic lead character indicts herself as a racist. While it’s encouraging to see an American playwright finding success with plays of provocation, “Spinning Into Butter,” with its manifest self-importance and ultimate insistence that what we all really need to do is talk about it, has the cloying tone of an afterschool special for adults.
Our prejudiced protagonist is Sarah Daniels (Jordan Baker), dean of students at a milky white Vermont college. The story begins with the revelation that threatening, racist notes have been pinned to the door of a black student’s room. Jordan wants to deal with this through the police and by focusing on caring for the victimized student; her more pompous colleagues in the effete academic community have different intentions.
Blowhard professor Burton Strauss (Ken Grantham) immediately wants a public forum at which he can become the spokesman for condemning such actions, and he’s joined in his desire to “discuss” the incident by the less pretentious but equally naive art professor Ross Collins (Kevin Symons). The more bureaucratic Catherine Kenney (Lorna Raver) just wants to make sure the event doesn’t turn in to bad publicity for Belmont College, but with lots of fuss being made it doesn’t take long for that to happen.
The student who’s the target of the notes never appears in the play — this is really not so much about the incident itself as about the history and feelings it evokes in Jordan, which leads to her unburdening in act two. A couple of students — one white, one Puerto Rican — make appearances so that Jordan can handle, or mishandle, their issues. As in “Boy Gets Girl,” we can expect that at least one character who at first appears hateful will prove admirable after all.
Gilman salts her subject debates with some effective comedy, poking fun at academic grandstanding and letting some catty insults fly. Grantham is particularly amusing here as the stuffy and self-pitying prof who despite his privileged background decides that he’s a victim, too.
The other cast members are cogent as well, bringing the arguments to life in this production directed by Donna Inglima. As Jordan, Daniels brings the right look — blonde and “all-American,” whatever that means — as well as the sense that Jordan is befuddled, even defeated, by her own internal conflict. But, hey, at least she’s honest about her thoughts, Gilman seems to be saying, and feels appropriately guilty. The preachy conclusion is that we should all start with such honesty and go from there, a well-meaning moral that still comes off as simplistic and even whiny.
Dwight Richard Odle’s set, Michael Pacciorini’s costumes, and Paulie Jenkins’ lighting define the old-world New England environment of Belmont College in fine, and appropriately fall, fashion.