nytheatre.com review by Ed Malin
February 23, 2011
Neil Cuthbert, a veteran of Ensemble Studio Theatre, brings us back to 1975 in suburban New Jersey with his new play White People. It is three in the morning and Hal and Mag, a 50-something married couple, are relaxing in their exquisitely domestic living room. It doesn’t stay quiet for long. Their three twenty-something children have left home but all moved back. The first to stagger in is Kate, a stripper. Jeff is an unemployed science fiction writer, who mostly stays in his pajamas. Bear lives in the basement, identifies with Black Sabbath and fast cars, and his favorite phrase is “cool.” Hal and Mag have their different ways of being disappointed in their family life; he has started drinking and has adopted Popeye’s mantra “I yam what I yam” while she just tries to keep composed during visits from their loud, proud, bigoted Gramma, preferring the serene attitude in adversity of Ferdinand the Bull (of children’s book fame).
By now it is early Saturday morning. Gramma shows up for Sunday brunch, a sign that she is a tad senile or at least not as perfect as she sees herself. Indeed, she can trace her ancestors back to a 1625 crossing and knows in her heart that white people are the best in the world. She likes Greeks for the same reason: “They were the world’s first white people, but they got darker.” Gramma sees the white mission of spreading out and conquering the world as having been reversed when her grandchildren moved back home, and smiles while she insults every member of the family. There is a surprise visitor, a thin, groovy, sunglasses-wearing male associate of Kate’s from the strip club who goes by the name “Boo Boo.” He was not invited, and Kate does not want his attentions. However, in private she reveals she is pregnant from their brief encounter and is leaning toward an abortion. Boo Boo, who grew up in foster homes, is determined not to abandon Kate and instead will help her escape from her toxic family. The more Hal talks about the horrors of World War II and his disillusionment with the suburban life he inherited afterwards the more he drinks, and the more hostile Gramma gets. This is no sentimental portrait of a family. Someone says “Whatever happened to peace and love?” and the response is “They O.D.’d.” Faced with losing her husband to drinking or divorce or both, Mag must learn how not to act like Ferdinand the Bull.
Making a “normal” situation break apart at the seams is difficult, and Cuthbert is to be commended. His work here is mature, straightforward, and reminds me of George F. Walker and Constance Congdon. By indicting Gramma, the great American past, he seems to be saying there never was such a thing as a happy family. But at least, therefore, we haven’t lost anything.
Michael Barakiva’s direction is mostly spot-on, with Boo Boo’s understated charm and Gramma’s outrageousness coming off as quite plausible. James DeMarse as Hal spends the play shell-shocked or intoxicated and always of firm resolve. Cecilia DeWolf as Mag makes an amazing if abrupt journey from doormat to fighter. David Gelles as Jeff and Jennifer Joan Thompson as Kate are simultaneously the young children who loved to play together and the young adults who hate each other. Matthew Minor as Bear and Mickey Solis as Boo Boo connect in the wordless world of cool. Delphi Harrington as Gramma knows she’s right and isn’t afraid to say it, even when she’s wrong. Suzanne Chesney’s costumes are very '70s, from Gramma’s matronly attire to Boo Boo’s perfect leisure suit. Maiko Chii’s sets are bright and cozy enough to make you nervous. There is even a garden on stage. Cat Tate Starmer’s lighting takes us through all parts of a long, long day while Matt Sherwin’s sound design brings back '70s classics.