Raymond Jordan and John Fedele in Spelling Bee
Raymond Jordan and John Fedele in Spelling Bee
A black man pointedly dressed in white and a white man pointedly dressed in black take turns addressing the audience in Philip Vassallo's Spelling Bee, the most interesting of three one-acts about racial bias that the Italian-American Repertory Company is presenting under the umbrella title New York Stories in Black and White.

The intention of the evening is to take a close look at the relationships, or lack thereof, between races. In Vassallo's piece, the two speakers, who occasionally interrupt each other, make a show of presenting themselves as likeable fellows with legitimate beefs to account for their admitted prejudices. For instance, the white man (John Fedele) admits that he was never the brightest bulb in grade school but says that his one talent was spelling; then he replays a particular spelling bee in which his only real opponent was black. He recalls how a teacher, giving in to some sort of political correctness, accorded that opponent a questionable victory. For his part, the black man (Raymond Jordan) describes a walk in Mount Morris Park during which he was menaced by a group of white men, one of them carrying a baseball bat.

The strength of Vassallo's 1995 playlet is that he balances griefs. Nothing, as the costuming subtly emphasize, is black-and-white. Intolerance, the playwright observes, can sometimes grow from understandable resentments--but the problem with rational gripes is that they don't often lead to attempts at reconciliation. These two gregarious men take turns as protagonist and antagonist, depending on which past episode is being depicted, but they never reach more than an uneasy stand-off. They may understand that they're in this conflicted world together but that doesn't mean they like to share it.

Vassallo occasionally inserts flashes of humor. On the trip through the park, the black man is stopped first by a sociologist; when asked a minute later whether he knows what sociology is, he says that he does and quips that "If there were no blacks here, there would be no sociology." But this humor if not unblemished. While talking about the survey-taking sociologist, the black man casually refers to him as "a faggot." The play, which has won a couple of awards, is well performed by Fedele and Jordan and nicely directed by Leann Walker, with everything kept relatively low-key. These are not boastful bigots but--and this is more worriseome--everyday guys with biases so encoded on their DNA that extracting them is well-nigh impossible.

The play immediately preceding The Spelling Bee in this intermissionless, 80-minute presentation is Stan Lachow's In the Garden at St. Luke's. Ruby (Quillian) is sunning herself on a bench and talking to an unseen person when Dorrie (Leann Walker) appears and asks to sit on the bench alone. In the conversation that ensues, it's revealed that Dorrie has her son's ashes in a box. A little too coincidentally, her son and Ruby's son, who succumbed to HIV complications sometime earlier, turn out to have known each other.

Quillian and Leann Walker in
In the Garden of St. Luke's
Quillian and Leann Walker in
In the Garden of St. Luke's
Dorrie, in from Kansas to complete the ash-throwing ritual, allows her despair to get the better of her and makes some wounding remarks about Ruby's boy, a happy drag queen. But Ruby, a New Yorker gifted with the no-nonsense outspokenness that women in plays like this often have, gives as good as she gets. Within minutes the two women have torn down the barriers dividing them. "This is the first conversation I've ever had with a black person," Dorrie blurts in wide-eyed surprise.

Through this outburst, Lachow indicates that he's more optimistic about blacks and whites getting along harmoniously than Vassallo. And, as Lachow sees it, the harmony is literal: Ruby and Dorrie find a nice reason to sing "Amazing Grace" together. Quillian is an assured Ruby and Walker, whose display of frail sorrow is almost too painful to watch, is a reassured Dorrie. Walker also directs with a forthright sensitivity.

Reconciliation is also a theme of the evening opener, Breakdown. The title has at least two meanings: The two characters, Sid (John Fedele) and Kenny (Raymond Jordan), are a soap-opera writing team tackling an upcoming plot breakdown. It seems late in the day to be mocking idiotic soap narratives that run to rape, unwanted pregnancy, and amnesia; but that's precisely what playwright Bill Bozzone has in mind as he looks at two men stuck in a job they disdain but can't muster the courage to leave. Sid would like to quit and thinks that a phone message left for him by a powerful film producer may lead to his ticket out...so, when they should be grinding out dialogue, he's trying to sell Kenny on the notion of helping him revise a movie script.

Even though Bozzone's short item includes another rift and reconciliation between a black and a white, race is, refreshingly, not the issue here. These are relatively color-blind friends who occasionally get on each other's nerves but generally enjoy one another. The problem Sid and Kenny face is a deadening lack of job satisfaction; the problem the audience faces is that the satire here is unamusing and Sid and Kenny's bickering doesn't compensate, this despite Fedele and Jordan doing what they can to enliven the dank proceedings. Try as he might, director Keno Rider finds no key to unlock this ultimately flat piece.