Saturday, January 31, 2015

Despite a Rather Sharp Turn, 'White Guy on the Bus' Stops Well Short of Greatness -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

White Guy on the Bus
a world premiere play by Bruce Graham
directed by BJ Jones
Northlight Theatre, Skokie, IL
Thru February 28

A big part of what makes live theater so amazing is the way it can surprise you.

Certainly, one hopes this most typically entails a show that you didn't know much about or expect much of really wowing you.

Best of all--keeping this to a dramatic vein although great musical theater can also be tremendously rewarding in an unsuspecting way--is when a really smartly written play wraps itself around your brain, making you consider things (within the play and beyond) in different ways.

Though far from as forthright, there is also something illuminating and even gratifying to be derived from a piece of theater that surprisingly fails to meet your expectations or simply doesn't engage you as much as you would hope.

A play that confounds you, especially when others you respect seem to like it, can prompt just as much post-show consideration as--and perhaps stick with you even longer than--a production more acutely enjoyable.

This may well be the case with Northlight Theatre's world premiere production of Bruce Graham's White Guy on the Bus, a drama that didn't quite dazzle or ensnare me, but which I would not wish to dissuade others from seeing.

To say I went to a local theater to see a new play by a writer who doesn't even have a Wikipedia entry far from fairly portrays just how much I was looking forward to White Guy on the Bus.

That Northlight operates within the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie, IL, just 5 minutes from my home, is simply theatrically advantageous geography.

Yes, the convenience has certainly abetted my attending several shows there, but in having seen several stellar, even superlative productions featuring the likes of John Mahoney, Mike Nussbaum, Michael Shannon, Rhea Perlman and numerous other great actors, I honestly consider Northlight to be one of Chicago's premier producing theaters, often on par with the likes of Steppenwolf, Goodman, Timeline, Court, etc.

And their 2011 world premiere production of The Outgoing Tide, written by Graham, directed by BJ Jones--Northlight's artistic director who also helms White Guy on the Bus--and starring Mahoney and Rondi Reed, still stands as the best new play I've seen this decade.

So certainly, the 300-seat theater down the street can deliver work as good as one may find downtown, or even on Broadway.

Besides The Outgoing Tide, Jones has directed several first-rate plays I've seen there, including Chapatti, The Odd Couple, The Lieutenant of Inishmore and Graham's Stella & Lou, starring Perlman and Francis Guinan, one of my favorite Chicago stage actors, from whom I've always seen great work.

Guinan, a longtime Steppenwolf ensemble member, stars at Northlight as the titular White Guy on the Bus, a well-to-do Philadelphia financier named Ray. 

Another Chicago stalwart I've always enjoyed, Mary Beth Fisher, stars as his wife, Roz.

The three other cast members--Patrese D. McClain, as Shatique, a young African-American mother,  Jordan Brown as Christopher, a surrogate son of Ray & Roz, and Amanda Drinkall as Molly, Christopher's love interest--all do fine work.

But despite terrific actors, enacting a world premiere piece by a playwright, director and theater whose past work I've greatly admired, I didn't care for White Guy on the Bus all that much.

And I saw it only after three relatives recommended it.

Hence why I'm so surprised that I didn't much like it, and--while being completely honest in my assessment--not wanting to be outright dismissive.

The play is certainly watchable, as Graham is definitely a deft writer, but despite marketing materials that describe it as "gutsy" and "candid" in addressing the complicated issue of race, I can't really say the two-act drama offered me anything particularly new or enlightening on the topic.

For those who may see it, I really think it best to say almost nothing about the narrative itself, which at the beginning seems at odds with the play's title.

As I mentioned, Guinan and Fisher play Ray and Roz, affluent white residents of one of Philadelphia's tony suburbs.

They engage in conversation with each other, and then with Christopher and Molly, largely on topics pertaining to race.

Given that some of the supporting materials I read beforehand referenced Graham's commentary on how white liberals are often unknowing, misguided and disingenuous when they speak about black lives, I noted both overt and veiled racism on the part of the characters in the opening dialogue, but I didn't find it all that new or engaging.

And when the story of White Guy on the Bus turns in a surprising way, other than palpable tension that makes the end of Act I particularly gripping, I more just observed than truly cared or felt dialed in.

At least in the moment, I didn't feel especially educated or enriched.

For a play supposedly in part about how well-meaning (at least in their own minds) whites don't truly understand the black experience, there seemed to be far too many contrivances in how the issue of race is dealt with.

Too little of what I saw onstage felt real, or even dramatically representative of true-to-life scenarios. I can't get into specifics without revealing key plot points, but it just felt like a play about race written by a white playwright who perhaps falls victim to the same lack of acuity that his characters do.

But as I opened with above, even though I didn't much like what happens within White Guy on the Bus, or what it seems to present to the audience, I don't disdain it for disappointing me.

It has prompted considerable consideration, and perhaps that is just as rewarding in the long run as a play that evokes more fervent yet finite applause...and thought. 

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