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Photograph by James Kaysan
LET THE FUND BEGIN: Dean Daniels (Karen-Meredith Wolf) tries to talk student Patrick Chibas (Jesus Fuentes) into a scholarship.

Politically Irrelevant

'Spinning Into Butter' at the Dragon Theatre is spread thick with white-man guilt

By Ben Marks

IT IS a natural temptation for directors and theater companies to ascribe contemporary significance to plays written in another era. They would do well to resist it. Consider Spinning Into Butter, presented by Dragon Productions. According to the play's program, this modest story about a handful of earnest white people struggling to be politically correct in the face of their own racism is supposed to be controversial, as if the problem with racism is its impact upon the perpetrators. Director Adena DeMonte ups the ante by suggesting that the questions the play raises are germane to the upcoming presidential election. Now, obviously this election will be about race, and race may even decide its outcome if, as some pollsters predict, a sizable number of white voters cannot bring themselves to cast a vote for a black candidate. But to suggest that playwright Rebecca Gilman's 1999 tale of political correctness at a liberal arts college in Vermont is somehow prescient enough to give us insights into the election of 2008 (post-9/11, post–Abu Ghraib, post–Wall Street meltdown) is as naive as believing that simply changing the way we speak about race is going to change how we feel about it.

That, at least, is a topic worth talking about, and from the first scene on, the characters in Spinning Into Butter talk about it a great deal. As the play opens, we meet Sarah Daniels (Karen-Meredith Wolf), a dean at Belmont College, and Patrick Chibas (Jesus Fuentes), a student. Dean Daniels has called Patrick into her office to offer him a $12,000 scholarship from a fund for outstanding "minority" students. Patrick, whose family is from Puerto Rico but who has never been there himself, balks at labeling himself a Hispanic just for the sake of winning a scholarship. From Sarah's perspective, she's being pragmatic, but Patrick sees the label as an affront to, and a compromise of, his identity. For about two seconds, that is, until, being somewhat pragmatic himself, he agrees to label himself a Puerto Rican and take the dough.

If this was all Sarah had to deal with it would be a pretty short play, but she is also rocked by the dissolution of her relationship with an intellectually advanced but emotionally stunted professor named Ross Collins (Kevin Kirby), an alcoholic mother to whom Sarah speaks over the phone and a black student named Simon (we never meet him, either), who receives a series of threatening, racist letters from an anonymous tormenter. In response to this outrage, Ross' and Sarah's blustery colleague, dean Burton Strauss (Rich Dymer), hold a series of forums to discuss race, which the black students end up boycotting because the whole exercise is, of course, more for the benefit of the clueless Strauss than the students. One white student, Greg Sullivan (Anthony Agresti), eventually rises to the challenge posed by the forums, but the person who needs the forums the most is Sarah, who, it turns out, is not the only person on campus with a conveniently serious case of self-loathing.

For the most part, the cast does its best with this clunky material, although DeMonte forces Wolf to sob solo for us for far too long. Chris Macomber is terrific as the domineering boss of the Belmont deans, Fuentes is convincing as the obligatory angry young man and Agresti arcs nicely from smarmy to sincere. Dymer's Strauss teetered on the brink of caricature, but maybe that's all the playwright was aspiring to, in which case he nailed it. There's even a thoughtful, wise-beyond-his-station-in-life security guard named Mr. Meyers (Lance Huntley). In another era, before the Civil Rights movement, Mr. Meyers would have been written as a wise-beyond-his-race black janitor, but Gilman wrote her play in the 1990s, so she had to content herself with a socioeconomic stereotype instead. By the time Meyers gently tells Sarah how disappointed he is in her, we know for sure that the problem with this play will never be its performances.

SPINNING INTO BUTTER, a Dragon Productions presentation, plays Thursday–Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through Oct. 19 at the Dragon Theatre, 535 Alma St., Palo Alto. Tickets are $13–$20. (800.838.3006)

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