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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
White Guy on the Bus
Given its subject matter and construction, Bruce Graham's White Guy on the Bus could easily have been a polemical discussion masquerading as drama. As luck would have it, the play is also crackling good entertainment, and Stewart J. Zully's production sparks and blisters.
In singing the praises of yet another Road Theater Company production, I find myself in repetition mode here. Guilty without apology. The number of L.A. companies that have the talent and the bandwidth to delve into new contemporary American plays could start to shrink as the fallout over the recent Actors Equity 99 seat takes effect. Sam Anderson and Taylor Gilbert's 26-year-old company, which operates two performances in North Hollywood, is among the cream of the small theater crop. Their production of White Guy, in its L.A. premiere, is not to be missed.
Graham's play is a mystery until it's not. We meet Ray (Kevin McCorkle), a wealthy financier in his 50s who lives with his wife Roz (Amy Stoch) in a big beautiful house in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Roz teaches in an inner-city high school where many of her students will end up as drop-outs, small time criminals or worse. Ray talks wistfully about selling everything and starting over somewhere new, but his wife is passionately committed to the students. Though they call her "white bitch" she says "They'll have to carry me out."
The couple enjoys regular visits with Christopher (Crash Buist) a neighbor's son, whom the childless Ray and Roz view as their own. Christopher's new wife Molly (Teagan Rose) is a guidance counselor at an upscale Bryn Mawr area prep school. Roz and Molly ostensibly both work in education, but they inhabit radically different worlds and, consequently, push each other's buttons.
Over appetizers and expensive wine in the suburbs, Roz talks about the challenges she faces trying to help doomed kids. . .and she finds a way to brand Molly a casual racist. Christopher, who is finalizing his dissertation on the depiction of minorities in advertising, wisely keeps his own counsel. He routinely declines Ray's offer to join his firm and make some real money.
The play jumps between the two couples' interplay and a bus bound for a New Jersey prison. While riding this bus, Ray befriends Shatique (Kacie Rogers), a nursing student and single mother who lives in the projects. Shatique is trying to improve both her situation and that of her 9 year old son. She takes the bus once a week to visit her imprisoned brother.
That weekly ride and the conversations with Shatique are an education for Ray who is schooled by Shatique in prison-visiting protocol and in the type of people who ride this bus. But Ray, the only white man, never gets off the bus, and all of the riders &emdash; Shatique included &emdash; wonder what the hell he's doing there. We'll learn the answer to that conundrum before the end of the first act.
When the plot's engine kicks into high gear, White Guy on the Bus shifts from genteel to nasty very quickly. Characters whom we thought of in one light prove to be very different.
Fair enough; circumstances can tear people apart and force them to reconstruct themselves. Ray takes the play's most arduous journey, but McCorkle doesn't consistently bring us along with him. The actor makes Ray too nice to be a smug know-it-all and the character's flashes of rage seem to come out of nowhere.
Rogers is consistently excellent. Her Shatique is a woman with dreams, and one who is willing to trust people even when sociological norms suggest she probably shouldn't. Her interaction with Ray is a test and, as she sees the consequences of her choices, Rogers makes Shatique's hardening, a heart-rending site. "That ain't happening," is Shatique's final line to Ray, who once believed that anything was possible. "That's never happenin'."
Buist and Rose deliver some nice chemistry and shadings as Christophr and Molly whose existence serves as a counterpoint to the Ray-Roz-Shatique storyline. Storch tears into Roz's speeches with an appropriate mixture of concern (Roz is a teacher after all) and righteousness. As constructed, Molly and Roz's ongoing debate over race could easily make the younger women look like naive and foolish, but in these two actresses hands, it's not so easy to take sides in their debate.
Ultimately, the power of Graham's play rests in its highly charged ambiguity. Whatever position you take as the curtain falls, someone could easily argue that you're wrong, and, sure, potentially racist. That's OK. The most interesting rides are always filled with bumps.
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White Guy on the Bus by Bruce Graham
Directed by Stewart J. Zully
Cast: Crash Buist, Kevin McCorkle, Kacie Rogers, Teagan Rose, Amy Storch
Scenic Design: Sarah B. Brown
Costume Design: Michele Young
Lighting Design: Derrick McDaniel
Projection Design: Yee Eun Nam
Sound Design: David B. Marling
Fight Coordinator: Crash Buist
Beatbox: John "Fahz" Merchant
Stage Manager: Maurie Gonzalez
Through March 18, 2017
Road Theatre, 10747 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood (818)761-8838, www.roadtheatre.org
Running time: One hour and fifty minutes with one 10 minute intermission
Reviewed by Evan Henerson
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