Hope Davis as Sarah Daniels(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Hope Davis as Sarah Daniels
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
There's been a lot of talk about Hope Davis' second-act monologue in Spinning Into Butter. Even if you haven't seen Rebecca Gilman's new play at Lincoln Center's Mitzi Newhouse Theater, you've probably heard about this speech: an almost 20-minute segment in which a well-educated, well-meaning white woman just, well, goes off on African-Americans. How they're loud and rude and stupid. How, when she's on the train, she looks for a seat next to (1) a white woman; (2) a white man; (3) a black woman; and, as a last resort, (4) a black man.

Everyone is, appropriately, horrified: the character herself (perhaps most of all); her co-worker/ex-lover, who hears her confession (but does not give her absolution); and the audience, most of whom have never head anything this graphic on stage. In fact, it's hard to determine exactly what is so shocking--that a person (however fictional) is saying this, that we're actually hearing it, that a playwright had the guts to write it down, or that a theater (in particular, a theater with a largely white, upper-middle-class, beyond-middle-age subscription audience) had the courage to produce the play at all.

However you explain it, the monologue represents the most uncomfortable minutes I have ever spent in a theater. And I say that with tremendous respect and admiration for the playwright, for director Daniel Sullivan (what can't he do?), and for the extraordinary Davis, who grows more and more astounding with each stage appearance. (Would that those appearances were more abundant!)

Davis' character, Sarah Daniels, is an impeccably dressed dean at the fictitious Belmont College in Vermont. She's young, trendy (she wears square-toed pumps and mid-calf-length skirts), and about as white as they come. One look at John Lee Beatty's spotless set--tastefully rendered in amber wood and soothing earth tones, blanketed by a stunning Oriental rug--and you know this place has a few Benjamins to burn.

The attitude of the administrators is similarly high-brow. So when an unseen black student begins receiving violent, threatening messages, the whole place is shaken right down to its Pottery Barn-esque woodwork. And the whiter-than-white staff handles the situation exactly as you'd expect a group of Ph.D.s to handle it: by the book (translation: very poorly).

Ross Collins (an appropriately scattered Daniel Jenkins) suggests a forum, to which the pompous Dean Strauss (Henry Strozier) and the clueless Dean Kenney (Brenda Wehle) agree immediately. Naturally--it's a chance to flaunt their own sensitivity and broadmindedness. One student (Steven Pasquale, who must have stepped right out of the Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue) wants to create a group called Students for Tolerance. After all, it will beef-up his application to law school.

While everyone else is putting on airs and taking great pains to keep their prejudices under wraps, Dean Daniels is watching her own feelings slip out. This happens in small

Jai Rodriguez and Hope Davis(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Jai Rodriguez and Hope Davis
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
but significant doses, like when she tries to convince a Nuyorican student (Jai Rodriguez) to categorize himself as "Puerto Rican" on a scholarship application so that he'll get the money. When the Dean lays out all her hate and fear and ugliness for Ross, she just surrenders--puts everything out there. Unfortunately, she also puts it on paper, which her nosy colleague spots on her desk. "It was in plain view," snaps Dean Kenney with the reproachful tone of the mother to a toddler. "It was in plain view." Sarah's mistake lies in not hiding her racism like everyone else.

As despicable as her thoughts and admissions are, Sarah ultimately emerges as sympathetic--no small feat. The other characters are not so lucky. Rodriguez has built up such a chip on his character's shoulder that he forgets to open his heart. (And this actor can do that; he was a wonderfully sweet Angel in Rent.) As the other two deans, Wehle and Strozier don't have quite as much to work with; they're essentially academic caricatures, but good ones. And though Jenkins doesn't get as deep into Ross's crevices as he could have, he holds up remarkably well during Sarah's confessional.

Gilman has lavished almost all her attention and care on Sarah, and it pays off. Spinning Into Butter can't help but make an impression, because you can't help but see something of yourself in Sarah. I know I did. I'd wager that everyone in that audience did. Exactly how much is something that I'm not sure any of us would admit.