New York Sarah Daniels, the dean of students at a picture-perfect New England college, is white, well-meaning and liberal. She also is a closet bigot.
It's a fact revealed with unnerving frankness in the second act of "Spinning Into Butter," Rebecca Gilman's disquieting, ambitious drama about race that is anything but black and white.
The play, which opened Wednesday at Lincoln Center's Mitzi Newhouse Theater, deals fitfully with this explosive dichotomy. The woman is the play's one fully developed character, and oddly enough, its most sympathetic.
Portrayed with quivering sensitivity by Hope Davis, Sarah really wants to help the school's few minority students. She supports a young man who could lose a scholarship after demanding to be called Nuyorican rather than Puerto Rican on the application. And, in the play's main conflict, she is there for a black student who is the victim of a series of hate letters pinned on his dormitory door.
These hate notes galvanize school officials, who schedule discussion groups and forums on race that satisfy their own needs to do something rather than focus on the concerns of the college's minority students.
"I want a 10-point plan with specific, concrete suggestions that don't involve a lot of funding but will have a great impact," one administrator tells Sarah.
The dean finds her efforts to help increasingly stymied -- by her colleagues and by the black student, a character, who, by the way, never appears in the play. Late in Act 2, the woman confronts her own prejudices and vows to eradicate them. "The transformation," she calls it: "Where you think you're not a racist and then you learn how you are racist. And you stop being a racist."
In the evening's most startling scene, the frustrated Sarah pours out her bitter feelings to a shocked colleague. It's a litany of racist thoughts, revealing, among other things, the woman's method of determining who she will sit next to on a subway train, a hierarchy determined by skin color.
Sarah also talks about once teaching at an all-black school where now she doesn't remember the good students, only "the awful ones because they dominated the landscape." And the litany goes on.
The playwright seems to suggest that for Sarah, the admission of her feelings is a start, a beginning to confronting her prejudices. The other characters on stage are not as perceptive.
They react with Keystone Kops clumsiness to the attack on the black student, who in one of the notes is compared to Little Black Sambo. The administrators are irritated at their own ineptness, as well as by the lack of appreciation for their efforts. They compare themselves to the tigers in the Sambo tale, who chased each other so furiously that they became a yellow blur, spinning themselves into butter.
It is in these secondary characters that "Butter" falters. They are not as well-crafted, appearing more as viewpoints rather than as real people, and stand in vivid contrast to the self-reflective, fully formed Sarah.
Gilman is a promising writer, and one looks forward to her next play, "Boy Gets Girl," scheduled for a viewing later in the year at off-Broadway's Manhattan Theater Club. The playwright has a flair for the theatrical and for sturdy dialogue, not to mention controversial subjects.
More important, with "Spinning Into Butter," she has created a fascinating central character whose all too human and imperfect views make an audience think -- and then ponder again -- long after the curtain has come down.