Review by Jaime Green
Our world is full of public apologies. Just a few days ago Jonah Lehrer gave a speech at a Knight Foundation-sponsored conference in which he paid lip service to the friends, family, and readers his journalistic fabrications and plagiarism hurt. Going back a little farther: Lance Armstrong, Elliot Spitzer, Michael Phelps for that bong. But public apologies only seem to come when someone gets caught. Is getting caught maybe all that’s being apologized for?
This is one of the many thorny moral questions dealt with in Michael Perlman’s new play, which he also directed, From White Plains. It is playing a limited run at the Pershing Square Signature Center playing a limited run at Teatro La Tea last year (for which it was nominated for three IT Awards and a GLAAD Award).
The play opens with Ethan (Aaron Rossini) and his friend John (Craig Wesley Divino) watching the Oscars. They sit, stunned and mute because the winner of best screenplay used his acceptance speech to call out the real-life homophobic bully who inspired his high school-set film, “White Plains.”
Of course, Ethan’s world explodes. First a barrage of text messages, and over the next few days, broader splinters throughout his life. He’d been living life as a normal 30-year-old bro. But how can he live his life when the whole world knows him as the bully who drove a gay classmate to suicide?
Ethan and his now Academy Award-winning former victim, Dennis, get into an internet video back-and-forth – Ethan makes a video apologizing, Dennis takes issue with its incompleteness, and the two go head to head. Meanwhile, Dennis’ focus on the fracas is straining his relationship with Gregory (Jimmy King, giving a performance full of lanky, muppety humor and sweet pathos), and even Ethan’s best friend, John, isn’t sure he can be friends with Ethan any more.
Perhaps many scenes later than the audience thinks it would happen, Ethan and Dennis are brought together by an arranged face-to-face meeting on TV. They subvert the authenticity of the TV event – Dennis walks into the green room and announces to Ethan, “I’m going to forgive you on TV.” – for an authentic private moment. But despite Dennis’ promise of an on-air apology, the real thing is much more complicated.
Perlman’s script (developed with Fault Lines Theatre, of which Divino and Rossini are co-Artistic Directors) provides an almost elegaic insight into the effects of bullying. For all that bullying is strong in the public consciousness right now, its lasting effects on seemingly well-adjusted adults are less fully discussed, and here they get full due.
The harder question, though, is what goes on in a bully’s mind. Ethan protests throughout the play that he was just a dumb kid, that he was just trying to make his friends laugh. The play presents him, as an adult, as a little angry, a little tightly-strung, a little willing to throw around slurs and call things, derogatorily, “gay.” But what about the fifteen-year-old who is as baldly cruel as Ethan seems to have been? A psychologist could read plenty into his actions – power struggles, insecurity, better-them-than-me – but what actually goes on in the heart and mind of that teenager? How does he, just a few years from adulthood, process or compartmentalize his own blatant acts of cruelty? Why does he, day after day, hurt people the way that he does? Perhaps this was an understanding to which Perlman and his collaborators had less personal access, but it’s the unmined mystery at the heart of this play.
(From White Plains runs through March 9 at the Pershing Square Signature Center (480 W. 42nd Street). Tickets are $34 and are available by calling Ticket Central at 212-279-4200 or online at www.TicketCentral.com.
Jaime Green is the Managing Editor of Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art.