White People

Written by Neil Cuthbert
Directed by Michael Barakiva
Featuring James DeMarse, Cecilia deWolf, Delphi Harrington

Ensemble Studio Theatre, 549 West 52nd Street 2nd Floor
February 16, 2011 — March 13, 2011
production web site:  http://tinyurl.com/4ks252b

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
February 25, 2011

The family, with mom Mag (Cecilia deWolf) front and off-center. Photo: Gerry Goldstein.

Neil Cuthbert‘s new family drama at Ensemble Studio Theatre is set in real time in 1970s post Woodstock, pre slacker suburbia — closer to World War II than American involvement in Afghanistan.  A story of children and parents of three generations coming to terms, coming into their own, standing in their own space, speaking with their own voice. This play set in the pre-Internet pre-cell phone past gets some things right, some things slightly wrong, with perhaps a few too many emotional and character notes. Yet the adventure is evocative of a time and a place and universal family challenges, with many sweet moments of resonance.

Fifty-something parents Hal (James DeMarse) and Mag (Cecilia deWolf) are keeping house in the house they built post WWII with their three Baby Boomer children who are still home or have returned home.  Kate (Jennifer Joan Thompson), the oldest, has returned after a bad break up and is dancing in a strip club to make money to fund her escape to an adobe house in New Mexico.  Jeff (David Gelles), the one college grad in the bunch, is living in his pajamas, postponing adult decisions, and writing a pornographic science fiction novel.  The youngest, Bear (Matthew Minor), could be still in high school (it is not clear), and spends his days getting high in the basement, munching junk food, and picking fights with his siblings.  Mag attempts to keep it all calm and proper in her dress and pearls.  Before her own mother Gramma (Delphi Harrington) comes into the story, Mag shows us a great sense of humor and feisty nature.  For example, in an early morning parental chat before the house walks up, Mag says to Hal of their children: “We tried to space them all out.  Now they’re all bunched up again.”  Feisty Mag loses her voice when her belligerent local widow mom arrives later that same day, a day early for lunch.  And the stakes are clear: will our family members find their voices and find their way out of their lethargy?

Ferdinand the Bull by Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson. First published 1938, Viking Press.

The playwright’s choice to utilize the children’s fable Ferdinand the Bull to illuminate mother and child bedtime story telling (Mag and Kate discuss the book) and life lessons on both sides of the passive-resistance versus stand-up-for-yourself sides of the line is masterful.  When do you stop and smell the flowers and allow the events of the world to pass by (Mag’s lifelong interpretation), and when (if ever) do you “lower your horns and charge” (according to Kate).  How to characterize holding back?  Kate: “It’s called repression.” Mag: “It’s called restraint.”  Yet Mag moves from this position before the play ends.

Almost everyone has choices to make: Hal to decide whether he’s going to give up and drink his way through his disappointments as his father did before him; Mag whether her bullish mother will be allowed to insult her for the rest of her life; Kate whether she will commit to a life choice present to her in a new relationship with Boo Boo (Mickey Solis); Jeff whether to get the heck out of his pajamas.

The playwright’s decisions to include this third child with not much character and storytelling value-added, and Boo Boo the bartender (portrayed by the entrancing Mickey Solis as all very 1970s Bill Hudson during the Hudson Brothers era) muddy the already detail-laden family focus of this plot.  And then, strangely, Michael Barakiva‘s direction for several long scenes freezes all characters on stage (and that’s a lot of bodies to render immobile in a small space) — when Gramma delivers her monologue of bigoted world views in Act One and when Mag delivers her “I’m running things now” speech (thank you Amy Morton, thank you Tracy Letts, thank you August Osage County) in Act Two.  The ensemble was not sufficiently focused or stunned into silence — the writing and the directly do not work together in these moments.

Our set by Maiko Chii creates many solid playing spaces out of the tiny 2nd floor EST theatre.  Sound design by Matt Sherwin evokes early morning birds and passing traffic and 1970s musical landscapes.  The only misstep sound seems to be the house music choice to include Cole Porter‘s 1935 tune “Anything Goes”.  While the lyrics relate of course to changing social mores — “In olden days a glimpse of stocking /was looked on as something shocking/ But now, heaven knows / anything goes”, the anachronism in this otherwise quite time specific show (writing, set, costumes)  is jarring.

Lovely performances, uneven direction, perhaps overfull stage.  The Ice Storm meets Ordinary People meets The Best Years of Our Lives meets Coming Home.  Yeah, a few too many notes.

© Martha Wade Steketee (February 26, 2011)

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