Racism: a comedy

Spinning Into Butter

Daniel Trujillo, Earl Victorine and Nina Breton argue the finer points of cultural sensitivity in <span style="">Spinning Into Butter</span>.

Daniel Trujillo, Earl Victorine and Nina Breton argue the finer points of cultural sensitivity in Spinning Into Butter.

Rated 4.0

God bless Frank Condon. The longtime artistic director of River Stage likes to challenge us (and himself) by picking truly provocative plays that jump right into a big, simmering issue. Often, he does this with comedies—wild ones, with sharp, biting, incendiary edges.

Spinning Into Butter is a high-risk script that deals with racism, a subject seldom associated with laughter. It takes its title from a once-popular book for children, Little Black Sambo, which is now considered to be riddled with racial stereotypes. The setting is an expensive liberal-arts college in lily-white Vermont (it might as well be Davis) where a black student, never seen, receives anonymous racist threats. Our viewpoint character is a well-intentioned, seriously overworked administrator played by actress Nina Breton (whose ability to communicate her character’s rising frustration through a world-weary gaze is worth the price of admission).

As the news gets out, various deans organize pious, long-winded forums led by a particularly unctuous stuffed shirt (very effectively played by Tim Sapunor). The whole thing turns into a comedic train wreck involving administrative doublespeak, academic rivalries, student rebellion, sexual politics, deception, betrayal and more.

This play is more a blitzkrieg of ideas and gut feelings than a case of sustained character development, which is to say that once playwright Rebecca Gilman and director Adrienne Sher get hold of the steering wheel, you’re in for a fast ride and some hairpin turns. Characters blurt out surprising (sometimes childish) lines, and not all of the situations work. But when it’s “on”—and it’s “on” most of the time—this dark comedy hits more sensitive soft spots and rattles more skeletons than anything we’ve seen since River Stage’s memorable and similarly dangerous production of Disability: A Comedy, two years ago.

It’s funny. You’ll laugh. And you’ll see more of yourself in the characters onstage than you’ll care to admit.