White Guy on the Bus
That's what this new play at 59E59 is about, among other things.
There's a white guy on the bus...in Philadelphia. What's he doing there? That's something we wonder all through the first act of Bruce Graham's White Guy on the Bus, as do the other riders (most of whom are black women). The play, now making its New York debut with Delaware Theatre Company at 59E59, initially presents itself as a tale of transit-forged understanding across boundaries of class and race, like Driving Miss Daisy for the SEPTA set. What Graham ultimately delivers is something quite different yet far more satisfying: a story of revenge and power shrouded in intrigue.
Ray (Robert Cuccioli) is our white guy. Every other scene in the play features him sitting on the bus next to Shatique (Danielle Leneé), a nurse who spends over 22 hours a week in transit, busing between work, school, and prison visitations with her brother. She doesn't understand why someone like Ray, who admits to owning a Mercedes, would want to take public transportation; but she's welcoming to him all the same.
Ray is a wealthy financier who lives in a ritzy suburb of Philadelphia with his wife, Roz (Susan McKey). Roz works as a teacher at a public school in a predominantly black neighborhood, where her students' outstanding performance has garnered her national recognition. Their son, Christopher (Jonathan Silver), is a sociology student married to Molly (Jessica Bedford), a guidance counselor at a private academy in Bryn Mawr (accent on the Mawr).
These four white people drink white wine around a wicker table and chat about Christopher's dissertation on male African-American images in television advertising, which naturally leads to an uncomfortable conversation about race. When Roz expresses her belief that the portrayal of black men as executives in TV commercials amounts to pandering, Molly admonishes, "You're looking at it from a white person's point of view."
Roz quickly retorts, "That's the only one I got, Molly." Roz is a bit of bully, treating every conversation like a cage match. McKey expertly inhabits this role, firing off wry comments as she swirls her wine in her glass. Playing the mouse to Roz's cat, Bedford is comically doe-eyed as credulous liberal Molly, pitching her voice up to protest the systemic injustice faced by Roz's poor minority students — not that she would ever work in a neighborhood like that herself.
Graham finds little ways to needle his audience in this ultra-contrived drinking-and-talking setup. We understand that progressive sacred cows will be rhetorically slaughtered, although Graham's reliance on archetype and hypotheticals make this somewhat of a facile endeavor (an extended exchange features Roz grilling Molly on which neighborhood she would rather have her car stall in: North Philly or Bryn Mawr). A radical tonal shift late in the first act changes things, causing us to reconsider everything we've just witnessed.
Scenes bleed from one to the next in Bud Martin's clever staging, which shows how the past often intrudes into the present. Paul Tate DePoo III's split-level set allows for these fluid transitions while exposing the massive lifestyle difference between Ray and Shatique. Wade Laboissonniere's costumes further illuminate that divide: She is more often in nurse's scrubs while he wears an intricately patterned tie with light blue accents to match his shirt and complement his suit jacket.
Ray didn't come from money though. He had to claw his way out of poverty, making him somewhat unsympathetic to those who cannot do the same. Hiding everything behind his cold, calculating eyes, Cuccioli delivers a fascinatingly dynamic portrayal: At first he seems like a man in the grips of a midlife crisis, but his ruthless instincts (the ones we suspect led him to make a killing on Wall Street) slowly come to the fore. Cuccioli's performance raises a question: Is the American dream designed in a way that favors sociopaths?
Leneé embodies a powerful foil in Shatique: Intelligent and tenacious, she lobs back every ball that Ray hits into her court. Still, matching one's opponent is not enough when the handicap is in his favor. Leneé captures the frustration of doing everything right and still getting the raw end of the deal. When we hear the helpless anger in her voice and see it on her cheeks, we have to sympathize.
But sympathy in absence of action is pretty cheap. For some people, like Molly, sympathy is just a self-serving exercise to keep the endorphins up – one that can always be given it up when it no longer fits into the schedule. Landing on a joyful family tableau, White Guy on a Bus has all the trappings of a deliriously happy ending, but it's one more likely to turn your stomach than warm your heart.