At first, the opening scene of Michael Perlman’s “From White Plains” might seem inspired by the 1997 comedy “In & Out:” An Academy Award-winning actor (Matt Dillon) outs his gay high school drama teacher (Kevin Kline) in an internationally broadcast acceptance speech. The only problem is that the teacher didn’t realize he was gay.
In the case of Perlman’s 2012 drama, receiving its regional premiere at Island City Stage, the actor is instead an openly gay writer, Dennis Sullivan, accepting the Oscar and using his television platform to publicly shame Ethan Rice, the high school bully who tormented him and drove his friend to suicide. And, like that teacher, the bully was caught completely unaware of his “crimes.”
What seems like a black-and-white case suddenly becomes gray as Dennis (Billy Hutto) stokes public rage on the internet after Ethan (Todd Bruno) clumsily attempts to apologize via YouTube. Quickly, it becomes apparent that Dennis has been consumed by anger for 15 years and any effort by Ethan will fall short of his expectations.
Further complicating the situation are the reactions of Dennis’ boyfriend Gregory (Dean Nigro), a somewhat-closeted conservative who wants Dennis to move on, and John (Alex Alvarez), Ethan’s college bro with a gay brother who questions his friend’s remorse. Neither proves to be the dependable wingman as the plot unfolds.
For the mostly older gay audience at Wilton Theater Factory, the story was immediately familiar and relatable. Even today, in the era of pansexual and omnisexual Gen Z students with a social conscience, high school can be an emotional minefield. Roll back the clock to the days when fags and queers were harassed on a daily basis and it’s easy to understand why Dennis can’t just let it go.
But, it’s also plausible that Ethan was just an immature kid who could never realize the true effects of his taunting. He didn’t even remember the name of the primary subject of the sadistic actions, let alone any knowledge of his suicide. He’s just an everyday jerk who whiles away his evenings at the local sports bar. Now he is saddled with overwhelming guilt that he may not be able to atone.
Perlman’s treatment of each character is even-handed throughout and none emerge as a clear protagonist or antagonist. After meeting in the green room before a talk show encounter, it’s apparent both old wounds and new may never heal.
Director Andy Rogow’s cast was passionate, yet still surprisingly stiff even on the second weekend of the run. Perlman’s dialogue can be a mouthful, especially in the extended conversations between Dennis/Gregory and Ethan/John. The pace picks up dramatically as characters interact with each other in real time on cell phones and instant messages. The biggest revelation occurs when Gregory and John meet on a subway train—anonymously—and end up discussing the news coverage of the public conflict, sharing unfiltered assessments of their partners’ motivations.
D’Vaughn Agu’s set is angular and boxy, covered in those beige institutional tiles that were synonymous with schools, jails and transit stations a generation ago. Joel de Sousa’s lighting design is equally stark, but never warm, mimicking the tense exchanges that dominate the 90-minute, one-act play.
Spoiler alert: Unlike many, if not most playwrights, Perlman doesn’t even attempt a tidy, let alone happy, ending. Life is messy and complicated, and Dennis, Ethan and the audience must all cope with the haunting memories that remain when the lights abruptly go down.
Island City Stage presents Michael Perlman’s “From White Plains” through April 21 at Wilton Theater Factory, 2304 N. Dixie Hwy. in Wilton Manors. Tickets are $38 at IslandCityStage.org.