Rebecca Gilman's 1999 student-faculty racism drama, Spinning Into Butter, is the second of the playwright's works to make it to Montgomery Theater's stage. The first was Boy Gets Girl, another workplace drama, but about a sexual predator instead of a racist one. Gilman clearly loves pressing a hot button, and she does it with a hand that is, if not lighter, then at least more dexterous than that of many of her contemporaries.
The play is based on events during the 1980s at Gilman's alma mater, Middlebury College of Vermont (here called Belmont College, with Justin Couchara's set evoking the Green Mountains with a painted backdrop of hillside trees in fall foliage). An African American student receives threatening notes calling him, among other epithets, "Little Black Sambo."
In one Sambo story, a group of tigers fight so viciously over Sambo's clothing, and chase one another so quickly that they spin themselves into butter, which Sambo then calmly spreads on his pancakes and eats. That explains the play's title, and the faculty's frantic response to the incident.
What isn't explained is director Tom Quinn's grim-faced reading of Gilman's script. As the play progresses into its second act, it becomes increasingly leaden.
The script is positively viscous with the gluey lingo of that era's identity politics; time has made their absurdity all the riper for satire. Obfuscating lines like "So you don't think the personal is political?" are spoken by well-intentioned white professors to other white professors, until they finally give way to the repeated, defeated, blunt assertion by Belmont's white dean of students, Sarah Daniels (Michelle Eugene), that she can't help thinking black people are just plain "lazy and stupid," and she never liked Toni Morrison, either. (Ironically, Daniels was hired only because she once worked at an African American college, and the administration figured she might be able to help with their diversity problem.)
Were such a story played faster, with a sense of irony, well, you'd have had the whole room spinning, both on and offstage. Played this straight, you've got a pretty tedious exercise in white guilt. One could get members of the audience to chuckle at something that would ordinarily make them gasp, thus revealing the audience's complicity in the very racial tensions the play examines. Without that approach, or something like it, the whole thing becomes an exercise in the sort of misguided pedagogy you'd find at one of Belmont College's flaccid, and much-derided, student racism forums.
Despite Quinn's misplaced reverence toward the play's subject matter, he still pulls fine performances from his cast, among them Jean Brooks' steel-jawed academy dominatrix, Gene Terruso's pompous windbag, and Tom Byrn's gently disheveled professor.
Gilman spins a complicated tale, and its issues remain raised after the curtain goes down, practically begging for plenty of post-show discussion. It's just that in this production, the resulting butter could stand to be churned a bit more beforehand.
Playing at: Montgomery Theater, 124 Main St., Souderton. Through Sunday, May 10.
Tickets: $23 to $35. Information: 215-723-9984 or www.MontgomeryTheater.org