Aside from the rare golden one-liners from the likes of Maureen Stapleton or Daniel Day-Lewis, most Academy Awards acceptance speeches are rhetorical mush: “I wanna thank” to people you’ve never heard of. Writer-director Michael Perlman’s new play From White Plains, which opened off-Broadway just last February and is running at Ithaca’s Kitchen Theatre Company, posits that such an acceptance speech could be electrifying. When writer Dennis Sullivan (Karl Gregory) is rambling on about the reality of the suicide victim in his script, he lets slip the name of the long-ago high school bully who precipitated the death. Only, as we learn, the outing of the miscreant was no accident.
All this happens before the first scene of the play, a tense drama punctuated with moments of dark humor. We first see the stunned faces of two pals, lean Ethan (Aaron Rossini) and plump John (Craig Wesley Divino), who have just turned off the television on which they watched the awards ceremony. They can’t believe their eyes or ears. We next hear a tape of Dennis’ accusing speech, naming names. Mitchel Cole was the gay boy fictionalized in Dennis’ film script, but the accused Ethan has absolutely no memory of ever having heard of him and is unsure of ever having seen Dennis. There is no question, however, that Dennis’ speech, which has now gone viral, is damning for things done in a high school he attended when it was all supposed to happen.
A blink of the lights and two more men, a gay couple, appear on Tristan Jeffers’ brightly lighted set, slightly off-kilter, with a table and laptop downstage and smeared windows set in a skewed wall at rear. Dennis turns out to be thin and dark, the shortest member of the cast, and Gregory (Jimmy King), taller and bearded, speaks in flattering supportive tones. They begin with euphoria (an Oscar!) and eventually get around to the implications of what Dennis had said before an audience of millions. Gregory suggests some rewording of harsh phrases, and Dennis can quickly pull up the text on his laptop so that he can edit before he does battle with the injured Ethan on the Internet.
Playwright Perlman has been schooled by Harold Pinter and David Mamet, with overlapping dialogue, interruptions, uncompleted sentences and thunderously loud pauses, but he’s more accessible than either of them. These are unambiguous characters, although they do leave some issues to be addressed later. Perlman always signals where he is going, but when we think we know where the plot is headed he surprises us.
It feels for a while that the main theme is homophobia, as Dennis remembers that he and the deceased Mitchel were thrown into lockers and mocked when they appeared in a school production of Pippin. Further, Ethan and John are portrayed as straights as the gay imagination might conceive them. They drink beer from long-necked bottles and curse the coaches and players as they watch a basketball game on television. Far from being a cliché, however, this scene exhibits some of Perlman’s cleverest writing, in which the two straights, especially Ethan, reveal some of the fissures in their relationship as they fire up their aggressions about the way the game is played.
The rival theme of From White Plains is the exploration of how young hip people, gay or straight, talk in 2013. It’s difficult to recall any other drama, live or on screen, in which so much of the dialogue is written to be delivered on either a cell phone or over the Internet. In one scene all four players are walking on the same set, talking into machines, paying no attention to one another. Without Perlman having to remind us, when the men communicate on machines more of the words come out in bold face, shouting and demanding in ways that they do not in person.
Dennis’ vilification of Ethan stirs up what we now call a “media storm.” They happen every day. Ethan’s hapless attempts to defend himself in a rival video only raise the heat. Friends and colleagues turn on him. He loses his job and faces death threats. None of this is to his face.
This Kitchen production reprises the same cast and director, even the same set and costumes (by Jessica Wegener Shay) that appeared at the Fault Line Theater in New York City last February.
Also making this production unusual, the program credits the four players, Divino, Gregory, King and Rossini, as collaborators with playwright Perlman. We do not often get to see players in roles that were apparently written for them and to which they have contributed. Some of this may explain why the two antagonists veer away from type. With a mop of curly light hair and refined good looks, Aaron Rossini’s Ethan could pass as a Botticelli prince. He changes more before our eyes than any of the four characters and suffers the deepest wound.
Karl Gregory’s Dennis takes even more chances. A graduate of the Syracuse University Drama Department, Gregory established his now-burgeoning career at the Kitchen in more than 40 roles, often light comedy. His Fully Committed (2004) won him a Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) Award. His Dennis starts out sympathetically and takes a detour through a self-righteous vengeful prig, daring us to turn against him.
The Syracuse New Times started referring to Ithaca’s Kitchen Theatre Company as upstate’s only off-Broadway theater a long time ago. Never more assuredly so than with From White Plains.
This production runs through Nov. 10.