Cecilia DeWolf and Jennifer Joan Thompson
in White People
(© Gerry Goodstein)
Cecilia DeWolf and Jennifer Joan Thompson
in White People
(© Gerry Goodstein)
There are a number of racist or borderline racist comments made in Neil Cuthbert's new play, White People, at Ensemble Studio Theatre. However, this genial dysfunctional family comedy does not aim to offend; in fact, the work lacks the bite needed to make it either provocatively satiric or incisive.

Set in a house in suburban New Jersey in 1975, the play chronicles a day in the life of a Caucasian family headed by alcoholic father Hal (James DeMarse) and his pushover wife Mag (Cecilia deWolf). Their three adult children -- Kate (Jennifer Joan Thompson), Jeff (David Gelles), and Bear (Matthew Minor) -- all live at home, which causes their parents some consternation.

The arrival of Mag's mother (Delphi Harrington) -- who makes the vast majority of the racist remarks -- a day early for Sunday lunch threatens to upset the delicate balance of the family dynamic. And things get even more complicated once Boo Boo (Mickey Solis), the father of Kate's unborn child, shows up.

The play includes several humorous moments, even if the playwright often resorts to various family members insulting one another for cheap laughs. Cuthbert's handling of dramatic issues is less adept, particularly Hal's depression, which is tied to his World War II military service, and his memories fighting the Japanese. Additionally, the play's more-or-less happy resolutions seem a bit forced.

The majority of the dramatis personae are underdeveloped, with the most layered characterizations to be found in the roles of Mag and Kate. Consequently, deWolf and Thompson come the closest to delivering fully realized characters. Solis also makes a favorable impression with his coolly understated portrayal of Boo Boo, and Harrington does what she can with a character that is given very little complexity.

Conversely, DeMarse pushes too hard to indicate Hal's drunkenness; Gelles projects Jeff's annoying aspects but fails to find the qualities that would make him more sympathetic; and Minor indicates nearly every intention of his character.