Sometimes, a playwright sets himself a bracing challenge he can’t surmount, such as writing three penetrating monologues for three Caucasians who are racist in different but very familiar ways.
That’s what J.T. Rogers attempts in his play White People, now at None Too Fragile Theater in Akron, and though it struggles mightily it never quite gets off the ground.
We meet the trio of characters on a day that is significant for each of them. But they’re all in a death spiral involving race and language that they find increasingly restrictive and torturous.
Mara Lynn is a southern ex-high school cheerleader whose life is sagging into boredom and who finds a handy scapegoat in minorities who “don’t even bother to speak our language.” Words are also important to Allen, a college professor who is fascinated and repelled by a black student, Felicia, who can destroy his arguments while snapping her gum.
And a high powered lawyer, Martin, is vexed by those who don’t dress or speak properly (“The skin color doesn’t matter, it’s the uniform that makes you safe.”). He's also put off by his teenage son who is sullen and distant
These are potentially powerful issues, addressed directly by playwright J.T. Rogers. That is the energy of this play and also its ultimate downfall. Since the characters never become truly real, isolated as they are in their own little bubbles and without human interaction, we never really know who they are or, more importantly, care what they think.
Sure, there are plenty of racist white people, and lots more who aren’t actively racist but have insecurities and fears regarding people who are different from them. A play that says that, to your face or not, runs the risk of being trapped by the clichés it attempts to skewer. And then you realize the piece hasn’t actually said all that much that’s new or revealing.
Robert Branch as Martin has the juiciest role, with plenty of laugh lines, and Michael Gatto (who looks like a cousin of Steve Carrell) is the conflicted Allen. Kelly Strand plays Mara Lynn with a shrug of resignation.
Trouble is, each actor tends to settle into a comfortable mood and then stays there, lulling the audience rather than confronting them about their closeted prejudices.
Director Sean Derry, when on stage, is accustomed to playing these kinds of inner-focused characters, and he usually does it with focused intensity. Here, his actors can’t quite reach that level of involvement, not finding ways to vary the texture of their speeches or explore pacing changes that could bring a freshness to their ramblings.
As a result, this production of White People, while intermittently funny and dark, feels mired in self-absorption when it should accost and jar the audience.
Through May 11 at None Too Fragile Theater, 1841 Merriman Road, Akron, 330-671-4563