By Kerry Reid
Special to the Tribune
4:04 PM EST, February 12, 2014
'From White Plains'
Tom Hanks' 1994 Oscar acceptance speech for "Philadelphia" included a shoutout to his high school drama teacher and a fellow drama classmate — as Hanks called them, "two of the finest gay Americans." That moment in turn inspired the 1997 comedy "In & Out," in which a former student accidentally "outs" his small-town teacher at the Academy Awards.
But what if someone turned the awards podium into an actual bully pulpit by calling out an old nemesis? That is the jumping-off point for Michael Perlman's "From White Plains," in its local premiere in an earnest but often-taut production with Broken Nose Theatre under Spenser Davis' direction.
Dennis Sullivan (David Weiss) has just won an Oscar for his autobiographical film "White Plains," which details the suicide of his best friend from high school, Mitchell, who took his life after relentless homophobic bullying, which Dennis himself endured. He chooses to name names, specifically the name of Ethan Rice (Adam Soule). As the show opens, we see Ethan and his best friend, John, (John Overton Lewis III) watching the Oscars, and we hear Ethan's phone buzz incessantly as a harbinger of how his life is about to be upended.
Perlman, who developed his script in association with the original cast from New York's Fault Line Theatre, makes the potentially preachy material work by shifting the balance of power throughout the 90-minute story and by adroitly weaving in observations about how social media influences our perceptions of unfolding news events.
To the consternation of his boyfriend, Gregory (Ben Burke), Dennis can't leave his old tormentor alone and responds to Ethan's YouTube apology with an escalating series of "j'accuse" videos. Exasperated, Gregory tells Dennis: "You're not even having a real fight. It's an Internet fight." In turn, Dennis also attacks Gregory for not coming out to his conservative parents. Meanwhile, the even-keeled and newly engaged John begins to have his own doubts about his friendship with Ethan.
So, does it ever "get better" for kids who were bullied? Like Christopher Shinn's "Teddy Ferrara" at the Goodman last year, "From White Plains" doesn't explore the reasons why some kids survive the cruelty of classmates and some don't, nor does it delve very far into the uncomfortable questions about Dennis benefiting professionally from the death of his friend. But though there is a whiff of after-school special in some of the writing, Davis' fluid staging and solid cast create an engaging morality play that goes beyond lazy Twitter hashtags in staking its territory.
As Dennis says to Ethan of his still-palpable pain over those long-ago torments, "It's not because I'm holding onto it. It's because it is holding onto me."
Through Feb. 23, Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave. $25; 773-404-7336 or brokennosetheatre.com
'Crime and Punishment'
By contrast, Mary-Arrchie's production of "Crime and Punishment" practically trembles with 19th-century neurasthenia, particularly in Ed Porter's hypnotic portrayal of the murderous and impoverished Raskolnikov. But, somehow, Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus' stripped-down one-act adaptation, which won raves at Writers Theatre in 2003 and has been produced around the country, doesn't feel well-served by Richard Cotovsky's imprecise direction.
Campbell and Columbus excised most of the longer moralizing passages in Fyodor Dostoyevsky's 1866 novel, which, in the nature of many serialized works of that era (hello, Charles Dickens!), has a tendency toward bloviation. Their intercutting cinematic structure and three-actor cast should also allow for a tightrope experience as the walls close in on Raskolnikov after he ax-murders an avaricious pawnbroker and her bystander sister.
Although John Holt's set and Claire Sangster's lighting design beautifully capture the suffocating attic and claustrophobic police station where Raskolnikov's story unspools, the underlying urgency of the tale feels truncated. Jack McCabe brings some sly "Columbo"-esque qualities to his low-key detective, Porfiry, and Maureen Yasko strives to reveal the sympathetic heart of Sonia, the streetwalker and moral conscience for Raskolnikov. But they aren't as successful in fleshing out the subsidiary roles, including Sonia's father, Raskolnikov's mother and the victims.
Crucially, Cotovsky's staging of Sonia and Raskolnikov's final scene doesn't allow us to see how Sonia's own religious convictions sway Porter's guilt-ridden Raskolnikov. But despite some onstage dramatic holes, the production offers a serviceable introduction to Dostoyevsky's classic.
Through March 16, Angel Island, 735 W. Sheridan Road. $25; 773-871-0442 or maryarrchie.com
Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC