White Liberal Guilt Trip Is Too Soft on Racism

It takes a bold, or overambitious, young dramatist to open up the racism can of worms. When I learned that Rebecca Gilman, the author of Spinning Into Butter , is white, I jumped a bit. Now, what would a nice, white middle-class playwright truly know about race? The question itself reveals, no doubt, a certain bias-the thorny subject of the play itself. But if I may say so in my own nice, white middle-class way, race is so tumultuous a topic that it would take one hell of a play to incite the kind of emotional and intellectual havoc within us that Ms. Gilman has in mind.

The controversy surrounding Spinning Into Butter -which is directed by Daniel Sullivan at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center-is that its racist heroine is a decent, conscience-stricken white liberal who’s the dean of students at a mostly white college in Vermont. Ms. Gilman has neatly wrong-footed us in this respect: The racist who confesses in Act II that she hates black people isn’t the usual stage villain or white bigot. She’s middle-class and educated and well-meaning-like you and me are supposed to be.

So far, so good and provocative. Ms. Gilman isn’t pretending to understand black America. The smug, self-deceiving white world of the liberal arts college is her bailiwick. (She herself attended a cozy Vermont college for a while.) Spinning Into Butter turns on the crisis that erupts when one of the very few black students on campus receives anonymous hate mail. Dean Sarah Daniels, the apparently tolerant administrator, leads the panicky investigation, but what follows appears to be a stew of P.C. satire, campus romance, liberal white guilt and confessional crackup.

The drama, alas, is too programmed, the issues mostly familiar and even tepid. I’m afraid that it proved far more challenging in theory. Reading the essays on race in the current Lincoln Center Theater Review gives us more devastating insights into divided America and the real state of intolerance and diversity on campus. But for a drama that’s intended to arouse fierce discussion and heat, the intellectual vigor on campus in Spinning Into Butter is disappointing. The black student never appears in the play-a deliberate choice and a debatable one. The only two students we meet are comparatively minor characters with an earnest “message”: the rebel student who insists on being described as Nuyorican instead of Puerto Rican, and the future lawyer from Greenwich, Conn., who’s worried how a public stand against race hatred will affect his career.

But the drama is weakest in its surprisingly clueless faculty. The liberal heroine, Sarah, comes over during the Act I crisis as an ineffectual ditherer leading dopes. How on earth did these third-raters get tenure? There’s blathering old pompous Dean Burton Strauss and his special friend, noisily officious Dean Catherine Kenney. They know what to do: damage control! There’s self-absorbed Ross, the art professor who thinks poverty is beautiful. In a romantic subplot, Ross and Sarah’s affair is on the rocks, and Ross dumps Sarah for old-flame Petra, but Petra knows about Sarah, who’s snippily pleased when Ross gets some of his own treatment. ( So there! ) Meanwhile, there’s a race war going on.

The strongest scene is Sarah’s anguished confession of her hidden racism in the second act. It is the dramatist’s point that “most people are racists. They just don’t know they’re racists”-even an idealist like Sarah. “In the abstract, black people were fine,” Sarah says of her time at a black college in Chicago. “But in reality, they were so rude .” ( So rude? ) You see how well brought up she really is! But she confesses now to avoiding sitting next to blacks on the subway. She notices their hair. Sarah beats herself up, finding black Americans loud, noisy, stupid, stinky: “I knew it was wrong, but I didn’t care.… “

It takes all the remarkable skills of Hope Davis as Sarah to pull off this self-lacerating 20-minute soliloquy of liberal white guilt. Ms. Davis, my favorite American actress of her generation, possesses the seductively liquid quality of the younger Meryl Streep. Beautiful, neurotic women on the dangerous edge have been a specialty of hers since her early days in Nicky Silver comedies. The repressed, now “liberated” Sarah is the more believable because of her. But in the end, it seemed to me that the tortured heroine of Spinning Into Butter is less a racist and more of a white liberal’s guilt fantasy. You admit to what you fear most. Sarah’s self-flagellating guilt trip is painfully confused. It’s somewhat typical of her that she even feels guilty about hating the novels of Toni Morrison! (How about Maya Angelou instead?) Then again, her ultimate reaching out for “dialogue” with the black student we never see is conveniently tidy.

The shameful issues the play raises are of vital, incendiary importance. But I felt uneasy about this group hug in liberal guilt in the company of an entirely white audience at Lincoln Center. Along with others I talked to about the play, it seemed to me too soft an approach to a time bomb.

The Guest From Hell

And so, briefly, to the revival of the vintage comedy The Man Who Came To Dinner starring Nathan Lane. George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart wrote it in 1939 for lots and lots of children and it somehow caught on with lots and lots of adults. It’s famously about the irascible Manhattan critic and socialite, Sheridan Whiteside, who falls in the snow during a lecture tour and ends up marooned in a wheelchair at the Stanley residence over Christmas. As one of the loopy characters puts it, at the prospect of heady fun and romance: “And bring the rye bread!”

Sheridan Whiteside is, of course, based on the bully-boy critic and guest from hell, Alexander Woollcott-known to fellow Algonquin wit Robert Benchley as “Louisa M. Woollcott.” “I am weary of the tyranny of this New Jersey Nero,” Edna Ferber said of Woollcott, and I’m beginning to feel a little that way myself. The difficulty of the piece is how to get us to see what’s so hilariously clever about the impossible Sheridan Whiteside, whose opening line is, “Trapped like a rat in this hell-hole!”

A clue: George S. Kaufman also wrote for the Marx Brothers ( Animal Crackers, A Night at the Opera ). Hence the live penguins and boy choir, among much else. Jerry Zaks’ snazzy production at the Roundabout’s new American Airlines Theater is at its best when it takes manic Marxian wing. Tony Walton’s drawing room set, incidentally, is a nice joke: a mirror of the restored auditorium itself-gold gryphons, sky-blue dome, neo-Renaissance mural, Pompeii pink and all. In an electrically insane portrait of Harpo Marx crossed with Groucho and Jimmy Durante, the near-levitating Lewis J. Stadlen all but stops the show as a character named Banjo. “How are Whacko and Sloppo?” asks Whiteside. Unfortunately, the inspired Mr. Stadlen doesn’t explode from a cannon to make his entrance until over two hours into the action. There are other compensations, but the three acts and two intermissions might test your appetite.

I don’t see what more Nathan Lane could have done with boorish old Whiteside short of playing him as boorish old Whiteside. He softens the monster for good reason, although his wheelchair, beard and owlish glasses shackle him a bit. “Come out from behind your beard, Nathan!” one thinks. “We know it’s you.” A muted Nathan Lane is a contradiction in terms, but amiable enough.

You might have difficulty with some of the more arcane celebrity names that are dropped throughout like confetti in a parade, and perhaps I can help. You will know Gandhi (or “Boo-Boo,” as Whiteside calls him). Hattie Carnegie is the society dress-maker known as “the American Chanel”; Dr. Dafoe is the French-Canadian country doctor who delivered the Dionne quintuplets in Quebec; Dorothy DiFrasso was said to be Gary Cooper’s mistress; Zazu Pitts is the beloved screen actress; Booth Tarkington wrote popular novels and plays about the perils of adolescence; Hamilton Fish is the father of Hamilton Fish Jr.

Impressed?

I’m off on a thoroughly deserved vacation now! See you all in the new autumn season.