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A CurtainUp Review
White People

You've changed, Kate. — Mag Nobody changes, Ma. They just get worse. —Kate.
White People
James DeMarse as Hal, Cecilia deWolf as Mag in White People.
(Photo: Gerry Goodstein)
Remember the song, "Kids" from Bye, Bye Birdie? "Why can't they be like we were,Perfect in every way?" It sounds like an apt a theme song for White People: "A Comedy by Neil Cuthbert and Neil Cuthbert.""

Neil Cuthbert and Neil Cuthbert? Are they father and son? Split personalities? The playwright explains that he began writing about his family 30 years ago but ran into dramatic difficulties. He put the play aside and recently returned to finish it and explains that the resulting play " has two authors, me at 30 and me at 59. The 30-year-old vividly remembered all the details of this life. The 59-year-old knew how to shape them into a play. Before, I was the age of the kids. Now I'm the age of the parents" In White People currently at The Ensemble Studio Theatre, we discover with Cuthbert how connected and imperfect they really were.

The play takes place in one day. It is October 1975 in the suburban New Jersey home of Mag and Hal and their three children, Kate, Jeff, and Bear. Each is emotionally alienated, harboring resentments and secrets. Recovering alcoholic father Hal (James DeMarse) is drinking again. Nonconformist daughter Kate (Jennifer Joan Thompson) works as a go-go dancer to save enough money to move to New Mexico. Jeff (David Gelles) graduated from college and returned home, living in his pajamas as he writes a pornographic sci-fi novel. He and his sister still squabble as they did when they were teenagers, teasing, taunting and calling each other names. The youngest, Bear (Matthew Minor), is an immature 17-year-old, jealous of his brother's intelligence. He lives in his basement "cave," smoking pot and blasting rock music, craving attention although he is barely tolerated. Mag (Cecilia deWolf), the mother, is frustrated, wondering what happened to her family — what has broken their connection, and how can she make it look perfect again.

Cuthbert's early scenes neatly set up the characters and his realistic dialogue propels them through the day. Directed by Michael Barakiva, Gramma (Delphi Harrington), Mag's bigoted and outspoken mother, appears for an unscheduled lunch and juices up the family stagnation. Looking around, she comments, "What a bunch of bums!". In her late '70's, Gramma feels superior to her family and everyone else, disdaining anyone different. Jeff says, "It's going to be another fun day . . . in the Twilight Zone.".

Attention shifts when a mysterious stranger named Boo Boo (Mickey Solis) appears looking for Kate and emanating cool in his '70's threads and shades. His clipped speech sounds mysterious He drives a Porsche, remains aloof through Gramma's interrogations, and is nonplussed about her early American lineage, successful marriage, and her now gone moneye. Ironically, she is drawn to Boo Boo's taciturn manner and begins flirting with him but her criticism and racist ramblings stokes the family tension and eventually leads to a crash and burn.

Secrets gradually unravel and the fragile family threads linking the family begin to break apart. After a lifetime of restraint, Mag finally stands up to her mother and orders her out of the house which prompts outraged, Gramma's "I'll leave my money to the Indian children. At least they're real Americans."

While Delphi Harrington excels as Gramma, the relative you love to hate, this is a skillful ensemble, each interacting easily with the others. It is easy to see Jeff as the young Neil Cuthbart struggling for a way to end his tale about aliens. Young Cuthbart never finds the ending but the older Cuthbert realizes these aliens were his family. James DeMarse portrays Hal with a downtrodden stance of self-hatred. Cecilia deWolf's Mag is a convincingly rigid wife who decided long ago that repression will serve her better than confrontation. Jennifer Joan Thompson as her conflicted daughter, Kate, opposes Mag's controlling and conventional values. Noteworthy too is Mickey Solis, giving a dark intrigue to Boo Boo while communicating his need to care for someone. David Gelles (Jeff) and Matthew Minor as the bumbling teen, are believable.

Maiko Chii effectively designed a comfortable middle-class suburban home set and the suggestion of a fenced garden in back. To one side is a mock Murphy bed indicating the upstairs bedroom. Suzanne Chesney's costumes are appropriate for the era and the characters.

Playwright Neil Cuthbert, after a few decades in Hollywood, returns to New York to finish memoir. it contains laughter and heartache and is filled details and insight into one particular family that he obviously knew well.

White People
Book by Neil Cuthbert (and Neil Cuthbert)
Directed by Michael Barakiva Cast: James DeMarse, Cecilia DeWolf, David Gelles, Delphi Harrington, Matthew Minor, Mickey Solis and Jennifer Joan Thompson
Set Design: Maiko Chii
Costume Design: Suzanne Chesney
Lighting Design: Cat Tate Starmer
Sound Design: Matt Sherwin
Props: Sylviane Jacobson
Production Stage Manager: Joshua Scherr
Running Time: One hour, 45 min. Ten minutes intermission
The Ensemble Studio Theatre: 549 West 52nd Street.
Tickets: General Admission, $30. Students and seniors, $15 at door. Pick Your Price Previews. 866-811-4111
Performances: Sat. and Mon. evenings at 7:00pm; Sat. matinee at 2:00pm, Sun. at 3:00pm except March 6, when the matinee is 5:00pm.
From 2/16/11; opening 2/24/11; closing 3/13/11. Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors based on performance 2/19/11
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