Fault Line Theatre’s “From White Plains” is a drama about high school bullying that is as thoughtful as it is passionate. It’s also clearly the product of a close collaboration among playwright-director Michael Perlman and his four-person cast—Craig Wesley Divino, Karl Gregory, Jimmy King, and Aaron Rossini—who get “written with” billing. I’m generally skeptical of authorship by committee, and there are moments that feel insufficiently shaped out of an intense rehearsal improvisation, but they are gratifyingly few. Transferred from a short Off-Off-Broadway run last spring and nominated for a GLAAD Award, “From White Plains” fully deserves a much wider audience.
The smart setup eschews TV-movie clichés by focusing on bully Ethan long after the fact, at age 30. The play begins with a dumbfounded Ethan realizing that he has just been called out for his abuse on international television by former classmate Dennis, who is accepting an Oscar for his original screenplay that details Ethan’s behavior, which Dennis blames for the suicide of his best friend. Ethan’s buddy John is watching with him, equally gobsmacked. The two straight boys met in college, so John has no way of knowing the truth of the accusations. Completing the quartet is Dennis’ boyfriend Gregory, whose quiet, self-effacing love and support are the antithesis of Dennis’ activist anger and drama-queen tendencies.
Unsatisfied with letting his film speak for itself, Dennis goes on the social-media warpath against Ethan as they trade dueling videos about whether or not Ethan now sincerely regrets his actions and how he should make amends. Soon Ethan’s life is falling apart. He loses his job and his girlfriend, and John begins pulling away. The gentle Gregory is increasingly dismayed by Dennis’ behavior, which begins to feel as if he’s now the bully, and their relationship is also endangered. It all comes to a head when Ethan agrees to apologize in person to Dennis on national TV.
On Tristan Jeffers’ spare but effective apartment unit set, Perlman keeps the 95-minute intermissionless proceedings clipping along in a staging that constantly reminds us how interconnected people are these days by their Internet devices. Actor Gregory is a fiery and relentless Dennis, admirably unafraid of the filmmaker’s unattractive qualities. Obsessive, vengeful, and childishly passive-aggressive, Gregory’s Dennis still has enough charm, wit, and playfulness to make us understand his lover’s feelings for him. As Gregory the character, King is an intriguing mixture of conflict aversion and spine, wisdom and timidity. The two actors’ scenes together crackle with sexual tension.
Rossini vividly charts Ethan’s disintegration into shame and self-hatred and is heartrending in a desperate last-minute bid to salvage John’s friendship. Divino’s expressive eyes alert us to emotions that this regular guy either doesn’t want or know how to show, and he’s particularly good in a scene in a subway car that has John and Gregory, as strangers, conducting a deceptively casual conversation about media coverage of the story.
“From White Plains” poses tough questions about responsibility, maturity, and forgiveness that you’ll likely be pondering long after it’s over.
Presented by Fault Line Theatre at Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St., NYC. Feb. 14–March 9. (212) 279-4200 or www.ticketcentral.com.
Critic’s Score: A-