Review: "White Guy on the Bus" at Square One Theatre Company

Maegan Clearwood

  • Associate Connecticut Critic

Square One Theatre Company is suffering from a series of poorly timed season planning decisions this year. Its first production, Core Values, was presented less than a week after the #metoo movement began, and storied the plight of a company manager who uses his position of power in a way renders him less than sympathetic in light of the real-world political atmosphere. The company’s current production, White Guy on the Bus, dives more intentionally and adeptly into thorny social issues, and is in the mostly capable hands of director Tom Holehan with an overwhelmingly strong cast – but once again, in the unfortunately all-too-recent wake of recent events, Square One’s play selection rings hollow.

The story revolves around suburb-dwelling financial advisor Rob and his jaded, urban schoolteacher wife Roz. For a while, the narrative consists of a string of intellectual debates about race with the couple’s semi-adopted son Christopher and his naively liberal fiancé Molly. The play finally picks up steam when Rob’s timeline is interrupted by periodic, seemingly innocuous conversations with Shatique, an African American woman whom he befriends on the city bus. The plot languishes too long in the world of white-people-getting-drunk-in-their-living-room-while-talking-about-race, but a ferocious twist at the end of act one reveals that playwright Bruce Graham has some sinister surprises in store.

The cast adeptly navigates the sometimes-rambling text. Janet Rathert as Roz and Emily Diedrich as Molly are foils on opposite sides of their many spats about race and privilege: Rathert plays cynical and crass with an obvious kernel of vulnerability beneath the surface, and Diedrich tackles her character’s well-meaning but sometimes misguided perspective with deft. Ian Diedrich as Christopher effectively embodies the liberal-to-a-point young white man persona. Erma Elliot’s Shatique is mostly understated and even demure – but in a nuanced, intentional way, as the fears inevitable in her life as a woman of color are gradually unpacked.

Most tricky of the characters is that of Ray, whose inner prejudices and demons take some time to reveal themselves. Bruce Murray plays the character as charming and paternal, with a disconcerting smarminess that makes the performance appropriately insincere. In this character, however, lies the crux of the play’s mistiming.

Our national conversation is finally shifting to center on the violence inflicted by white men, and the centuries-long systematic injustice inflicted on black men for nonviolent crimes is more relevant than ever. White Guy on the Bus is, well, about a white guy, whose antihero vigilantism is sparked by (here be spoilers) the violence of a black man on the white woman he loves. Ray even makes an offhanded, very early joke about waltzing into his workplace with a gun; this is certainly prophetic for his character, but it’s also a lighthearted gag that reveals the privilege white men enjoy to consider such acts of violence with little to no consequence – and one of the final images of (again, spoilers) violence against a black woman is dramaturgically appropriate for a white man with such seething, racist anger, but certainly not a stage picture that feels justified. This is a white-centric narrative that attempts to subvert racist tropes about violence, but the ends don’t justify the means – particularly for an all-white audience like the one at Square One’s opening night.

Director Holehan might have upended some of these textual problems with some more creative staging, perhaps finding a way to give Shatique more agency or Ros less sympathy. Ultimately, however, he stages this play in an effective, simplistic manner that draws attention to the engaging performances. Holehan struggles sometimes with the awkwardly horizontal stage, which presents myriad movement obstacles for the actors, but overall crafts an active, nuanced narrative.

Much of the credit for his effective stage pictures goes to scenic designer Robert Mastroni, whose stark, simplistic concept divides the stage into two clearly delineated worlds. Graffiti artist Sarah Harrison created a stunning, colorful image for the city-half of the set, and although an awkwardly naturalistic set of table and chairs throws the abstract concept into some confusion, the sum of the design’s parts is overall effective.  The play could have used much more input from sound designer Don Henault, whose work is mostly confined to pre and post-show music instead of underscoring, which the eerily quiet onstage world could definitely use, but costume designers Gaetana Grinder and Kerry Lambert outfit the actors in appropriately, sometimes almost comically, suburban attire – all resulting in a mostly well defined world.

Square One deserves credit for mounting this complex play with such deft, and its effort to spark a conversation about race and privilege is clear and very well-intentioned. It’s a shame that, once again, the company’s season is awkwardly upended by real-world timing, but I do hope that they will continue diving into difficult themes and dialogues – perhaps in the future with stories by and about women and people of color, rather than the white men who inflict violence upon them.