Photo by Richard Termine
The following three plays, which are scheduled to continue into January, are among the best currently appearing in New York’s smaller venues.
WHITE CHOCOLATE Culture Project at the Century Center for the Performing Arts, 111 E. 15th St. (212) 239-6200.
William Hamilton is the New Yorker cartoonist known for capturing the impudent hubris of WASP executives and their privileged offspring. If A.R. Gurney traded his keyboard for India ink and steel-nibbed pens, his characters would very much resemble the moneyed schmoozers who inhabit the cocktail hours, gentlemen’s clubs and Ivy League parties sketched by Hamilton’s swirly hand. Hamilton’s comedy, White Chocolate, is a contemporary race fable set in the Manhattan penthouse of Brandon and Deborah Beale (Reg E. Cathey and Lyn Whitfield). He’s a Boston Brahmin; she comes from Jewish retail money. When the play begins, they’ve awakened one morning to discover they’ve become black. To be sure, they speak in the same voices as they always have and don’t feel like anything but “white” — but their skin is dark, and that’s all that matters to the play’s other characters. On this very day, the new directorship of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is to be given to Brandon or an African-American rival, so the Beales’ metamorphosis couldn’t come at a worse time — or could it? In many ways White Chocolate seems to have emigrated from the 1960s, when “race relations” meant white vs. Negro and liberals were becoming self-aware of assumptions they never articulated in mixed company. All the Black Like Me, Watermelon Man epiphanies about skin and perception are here, yet under David Schweizer’s assured direction, take on new life in this painfully comic evening.
BUG Barrow Street Theater, 27 Barrow St. (212) 239-6200.
Speaking of metamorphoses, viewers hearing the title of Tracy Letts’ 1996 play may think they’re in for a retelling of a certain Kafka novella, only to find themselves in a drama about paranoia on the American prairie. Agnes White (Kate Buddeke, in a gut-wrenching performance) is a cocktail waitress who spends her spare time staring out the window of her Oklahoma motel room (rendered with frightening authenticity by Lauren Halpern), while frequently dipping into her own back bar and a stash of cocaine. This bleak misery-en-scène unexpectedly becomes an endearing love story with the arrival of a mysterious drifter named Peter (Jonno Roberts). But then come the bugs — the ones Peter, an ex-GI, obsessively pulls off his body first, then Agnes’. Are the insects imagined or, as Peter claims, the result of a terrible military experiment? Five outstanding actors, under Dexter Bullard’s taut direction, make Bug an evening of nonstop suspense and menace.
GUANTÁNAMO: Honor Bound To Defend Freedom Culture Project at 45 Bleecker Street Theater. (212) 253-9983.
Don’t let anyone tell you documentary theater (or the ironic subtitle) is dead. Based on interviews conducted by Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo, as well as the comments of various government officials and legal figures, this London import presents the stories of four British Muslims held at Guantánamo as suspected terrorists. (The men are played by Ramsey Faragallah, Andrew Stewart-Jones, Waleed Zuaiter and Aasif Mandvi.) Clearly innocent victims of post-9/11 hysteria, the men still languished in cages at Camp X-Ray for several years before the Blair government obtained their release. Although presented in the coldly formal settings of interrogation rooms and prison cells, the stories hit us as though they came from close relatives. Directors Nicolas Kent and Sacha Wares imbue their actors with small gestures (the lighting of a cigarette, the shifting of a chair) that magnify the humanity of the prisoners and their advocates. On the other hand, the grotesque specter of Donald Rumsfeld (Robert Langdon Lloyd), who pops up at press conferences to affably present America’s disdain for human rights, reminds us that after the recent election, the landscape of legal civilization threatens to become an arbitrary frontier of violence and self-interest.