White people, they just suck. And it's sometimes pretty hard to get around that, unless you can make money booking their bands at the Shack on Sunday nights. Or if you've got the glands to stand up and embrace your white suckiness with gladdened and hopeful heart—then there's a chance to heal, or at least a chance for a few laughs. And there, somewhere in between, is Rebecca Gilman's Spinning Into Butter, an admirably, unflinchingly honest if sometimes unwieldy examination of race, relationships and why white people—well, in some ways, all people—suck.
Naturally, it all goes down at a small (and rich) liberal (and predominately white) arts college: neither particularly liberal nor artful, Belmont College is the kind of fuzzy-wuzzy, feel-good place where if a problem can't be solved by a committee, a forum and a bulleted list of recommendations, it just isn't worth solving. Dean Sarah Daniels (a hard-nosed Jordan Baker in a memorably earnest performance), already charged by the ham-handed administration with handling the school's few nonwhite students, is at ground zero when someone starts leaving racist notes on an African-American student's dorm-room door. It's a bad situation in a bad location, and Gilman ably and realistically nurses it to a painfully raw climax.
A play like this could go from discourse to disaster in about two syllables. But to her credit, Gilman struggles mightily to disarm cliché and push toward some sort of honest accounting of white liberal shame—tellingly, the African-American student in question never manifests onstage; deprived of a voice or a face of his own, he's present only by paternal Caucasian proxy. It's not always a pleasant play, not so much for the race angle as the clunky subplots and occasional cheese deposits. But it's also not a simple anti-PC screed, pitiable hand-wringing, or riffing on the some-of-my-best-friends strain of racism (though those anti-PC digs do garner the big yuks down in Laguna). Butter's pat ending disappoints a bit, but Gilman isn't afraid of the socially uncomfortable—and all of us sucky white people out in the audience could stand to be a little uncomfortable sometimes.
Spinning Into Butter at the Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-ARTS. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 8 p.m. Through Oct. 7. $38-$45.