In recent years, the LGBT community has adopted the issue of anti-gay bullying as a cause célèbre, leveraging tragic, high-profile cases to shine a light on intolerance and advance gay rights. More often than not, the issue is reduced to black and white — bullies are evil, victims are saints.
“From White Plains,” the savvy, searing drama about the lingering aftermath of a suicide brought on by a high school bully, refuses to traffic in such stereotypes, instead exploring the mottled shades of gray.
Written and directed by Michael Perlman, the bold, scrappy work manages to steer clear of preachiness in order to focus on the complex contradictions of human relationships. Ultimately, the play is about anger, retribution, forgiveness, and exorcizing personal demons so that we can move forward. And, in some respects, it also attempts to redefine what it means to be gay.
The opening scene is a doozy. Ethan and his best bud John sit in shock in front of the television, having just watched some gay guy Ethan went to high school with win an Academy Award for his biopic about bullying. In the acceptance speech, screenwriter Dennis, best friends at school with the tormented boy who later took his own life, names Ethan as that bully.
Breaking the stunned silence is a barrage of buzzing messages coming in on Ethan’s phone. Masterfully timed and exquisitely unnerving.
According to John, the film, titled “White Plains,” is where “plain white people” live. And it’s about “what they do to people who aren’t just white and plain.”
What follows is a highly public battle, waged over the blogosphere, between Ethan and Dennis, whose life was also made a living hell by Ethan 15 years earlier. Dennis’ obsession with revenge puts undue strain on his relationship with his boyfriend Gregory, who’s dealing with baggage of his own. Despite apologies from Ethan, Dennis continues his attack. The relentless exposure causes Ethan to lose his job and his girlfriend and threatens his friendship with John.
So who is the bully now?
As the 30-year old former tyrant who hasn’t completely changed his ways (in heated moments he calls his straight bud John a fag), Aaron Rossini delivers a layered, absorbing performance. Even though we loathe Ethan’s past behavior, he earns our sympathy. He claims he was an asshole to everyone in high school, just trying to score laughs. Not that we’re totally buying it.
Craig Wesley Divino portrays John with skillfull restraint. Also harassed by bullies as a kid, John is torn between supporting his friend and moving on with his own life, by planning a wedding with his new fiancée.
Perlman does a nice job of integrating of-the-moment technology to advance the plot. At one point, all four characters are tapping away on sleek computers, tablets, or smartphones while dramatic momentum is sustained — no easy feat.
Somewhat less successful are scenes between Dennis and Gregory (Jimmy King) –– who alternately bicker and smooch –– that tend to err on the melodramatic side. As played by Karl Gregory, the crazed, self-righteous, axe-grinding Dennis is largely unlikable until the confrontational climactic scene. We’re on his side, but it’s not hard to imagine him as a target for brutes in high school. He’s no saint, that’s for sure.
Unfortunately, Perlman falls into the trap of many young playwrights who direct their own material by including problematic scenes that drag down the rest of the piece. A contrived chance meeting on a subway and the limp coda should have been reworked, if not cut.
To say that the main message of this insightful if slightly frustrating work is “bullies are people too” would be an oversimplification. “From White Plains” posits that all of us — best buds, boyfriends, parents, victims — are capable of being bullies. And that sometimes it takes an eye-for-an-eye conflict to move beyond a quagmire from the past and focus on a brighter future.
FROM WHITE PLAINS | Fault Line Theatre Company | Studio Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center | 480 W. 42nd St. | Through Mar. 9; Wed.-Fri. at 8 p.m.; Sat. at 2 & 7:30 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $34 at ticketcentral.com.