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Theatre in Review: White Guy on the Bus (Delaware Theatre Company/59E59)

Robert Cuccioli, Danielle LeneƩ. Photo: Matt Urban/Mobius New Media, Inc.

Bruce Graham's new play is about the terrible effects of racism -- on white people. That's certainly a fresh slant. The white guy of the title is Ray, an investment counselor of a certain age, who has grown tired and ashamed of his work. "I make rich people richer," he says. "I tell them where to put their money and then how to hide as much of it as they can from the government." Ray lives in suburban splendor, outside Philadelphia, with his wife, Roz, who teaches English at an inner city school with a majority black student body. To say the job is challenging is putting it mildly. As she notes, "Every week in the faculty room they have a betting pool on how many times I get called 'bitch.' Or, should I say, 'white bitch.' I think the record was like eighteen." On the bright side, she uses this epithet as an opportunity to teach the use of adjectives.

The above discussion comes during one of the many social occasions Ray and Roz share with their young friends Christopher and Molly. Molly is a guidance counselor at a posh (and all-white) girls' academy, and, overflowing with good intentions, is scandalized by Roz's brutal comments about her ghetto school. When Molly notes that her students have problems, too, that, for example, one of them is a cutter, Roz replies, "Your kids cut themselves. Mine cut each other." Roz also rails against "perceived racism," tricking Molly with a quiz: If her car broke down, would she rather it happened near her girls' academy or in inner-city Philadelphia? When Molly gives the obvious response, Roz, assuming the role of an offended black person, says, "You're saying black people are dangerous." She adds, "It's the new McCarthyism -- don't like the way someone thinks, call 'em a racist. Someone calls you a racist, how do you defend yourself? Guess what -- you can't."

Even as you're wondering how these poor middle- and upper-class whites can bear up under these burdens, we see Ray riding on a Philadelphia city bus, where he befriends a young black woman named Shatique. The appearance of a white man in an expensive suit on public transportation does not go unnoticed by the regular riders, but he and Shatique hit it off over the course of several trips; she works at an assisted-living facility, is studying to be a nurse, and has farmed out her son to her mother in New Jersey, safely away from her ghetto building, where, among other things, one of the tenants is a crackhead who emerges from his apartment to bark like a dog.

This back-and-forth structure -- cocktails and debates about political correctness with Christopher and Molly, alternating with bus rides during which Shatique opens up about her struggles -- leaves one wondering exactly where Graham's plot is headed. Adding to the mystery: Ray and Shatique's bus ride ends at a prison, where she visits her brother, a lifer. Ray never disembarks, instead taking a round trip. Also, Ray tells Shatique first that he isn't married and, later, that his wife is dead.

It all comes clear one dark and stormy night when Ray appears at the door of Shatique's apartment -- an address she never gave him -- armed with an alarming amount of information about her personal life. He also makes an offer that -- shocking as it is -- she won't be able to refuse. It's at this point that White Guy on the Bus surrenders any pretense at analyzing America's racial divide, instead becoming a florid melodrama loaded with speechmaking. Graham's play is already perilously overloaded with white grievance; the addition of thriller elements seemingly lifted from an old Charles Bronson movie does nothing to advance his argument.

That White Guy on the Bus remains watchable is largely due to Robert Cuccioli's performance, which incisively delineates Ray's increasing self-loathing, and, later, fury; he also keeps us guessing about Ray's real intentions. It's a tough, thankless role, but it's hard to imagine anyone doing better with it. Susan McKey doesn't shy away from Roz's harder-edged qualities, a smart, courageous choice, given some of the things she has to say. Danielle LeneƩ, as Shatique, gives a most lifelike performance, in part because she doesn't have so many sententious speeches to deliver; she makes the most of her character's tough-minded observations, including the fact that, while holding down work, attending school, and visiting her family, she spends 22.8 hours a week on public transportation. Then again, she ends up being a pawn in Ray's scheme; in a play about racism, she is the special guest black person. Jessica Bedford and Jonathan Silver are fine as Molly and Christopher, although both are saddled with Act II plot developments that require them to totally reverse themselves in order to keep the plot humming along.

The rest of Bud Martin's fluid, fast-moving production is assured. Paul Tate de Poo III's unit set, aided by Nicholas Hussong's projections and Rob Denton's lighting, allows for seamless, cinematic transitions from one location to another. Wade Laboissonniere's costumes are generally accurate in helping to mark the barriers of race and class that separate the characters. Michael Hahn's mood-setting music and sound effects -- buses, storms, and the barking of that crackhead -- are thoroughly solid.

White Guy on the Bus has surely been written with the best of intentions -- at one point, Ray lays the blame for the yawning inequities of American society on runaway capitalism as practiced by the likes of Bernard Madoff -- but it succeeds only in demonstrating just how difficult it is to deal with this material in a thoughtful, nuanced way. Graham lets his characters vent, but they rarely say anything trenchant. -- David Barbour

(15 March 2017)

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