Some years ago I was having a kind of reunion dinner in New York with a good friend from high school who had, as we say, done very well with his life -- of all my old friends the best known. Yet here I sat listening to this middle-aged man talking in vivid detail about how we was bullied in high school and berating me for not helping him. It was the first time I had heard about the bullying: he had not mentioned it back then so I could hardly be responsible. But why hadn't I known? Or didn't I want to know? It was an odd and sad occasion. I thought about this while watching Michael Pearlman's fine play, FROM WHITE PLAINS. Dennis Sullivan, the play's focal character, has just won an Academy Award for his independent film, but he is obsessed with how he and his best friend were bullied in high school and is fixated on the subsequent suicide of his friend. This experience fueled his artistic creation -- his film is a slightly fictionalized version of this high school bullying -- but he can't move on from the experience. In his Academy Award acceptance speech, he names the bully he holds responsible for his friend's suicide and subsequently launches an assault of internet attacks on the former bully. This event makes Ethan, the high school bully now in his thirties, a poster boy for homophobia and bullying. To many, Ethan is a murderer. He loses his girlfriend, his job and his Facebook page is filled with threats. His relationship with his best friend, John, also seems to be on the rocks. John was himself a victim of high school bullying and his brother is gay, so revelations of Ethan's past cruelty hit him hard. Ethan is not a totally sympathetic character. He is a bit of a jerk and still has a tendency to use words like "faggot," but Dennis's constant public attacks on him are also a form of bullying. Dennis's inability to move from his past leads to the end of his relationship with his devoted boyfriend who gives up trying to get Dennis to move on. FROM WHITE PLAINS focuses on the strained relationships of these four men, particularly the relationships of Dennis and his lover and Ethan and his friend.
The beauty of FROM WHITE PLAINS is its even-handedness. Rather than parrot the usual politically correct mantras, playwright Pearlman tests our sympathies. Indeed, my partner and I left the theater disagreeing about the extent to which Dennis's actions were justifiable. His boyfriend is sweet, but totally unrealistic about whether he can "save" Dennis from his obsession. John's need to distance himself from Ethan is understandable, but he's ditching his best friend at the worst possible moment. In terms of having action spring from character, this is as well conceived a play as I have seen in a while. Pearlman also knows how to give each character a distinctive voice. In the post-Pinter/Mamet tradition, there are pauses followed by explosions of overlapping dialogue, but these moments seemed totally convincing. Pearlman also directed his production with one simple set serving without any changes as a variety of locales. This simplicity, respecting the audience's imagination, is a welcome relief from recent productions that fill the stage with unnecessary scenery and lose their rhythm from elaborate set changes that are like commercial breaks one cannot fast forward through (we're among those who record tv shows and watch them later so we can speed through the commercials).
The company of actors who performed this play, the Fault Line Theatre Company, are all, like Pearlman, products of Brown's graduate theatre program. I can't imagine a better cast. As members of a company who have worked together for a while, they bring to the play a sense of ensemble you can't create in a four to six week rehearsal period. I can't single out a particular performance. This is a team effort, so kudos and bravos to Craig Wesley Divino, Karl Gregory, Jimmy King and Aaron Rossini.
FROM WHITE PLAINS is an intelligent, absorbing drama about the ways men deal with past traumas and the difficulty of real forgiveness. I'm sorry I saw the last performance in its limited run. I'd go back. Excellent!!
FROM WHITE PLAINS. Written and directed by Michael Pearlman. Fault Line Theatre Company at the Pershing Square Signature Center.