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Beneath The Gavel
Photo by Matt Urban/Mobius New Media Inc.

59E59 is heating up the liberal conscious with two American plays, White Guy on the Bus and Beneath the Gavel.

Photo by Matt Urban/Mobius New Media Inc.
Photo by Matt Urban/Mobius New Media Inc.

Liberal audiences love it when they see a show that supports their world views. It makes them feel as though they’ve performed an act of community service or that they’ve assuaged their guilt for being “bougie.”  Thanks to award-winning playwright Bruce Graham, the progressively minded will not be patting themselves on the back when they see White Guy on the Bus. However, they are going to squirm a little bit and by the end, they’ll have a helluva lot to think about.

Graham’s two-act play takes place in separate worlds: The first within North Philadelphia, a crime ridden, low economic part of town where Shantique (Danielle Lenee) resides. She’s a single mom struggling to make ends meet while working a full-time job and going to school.

Ray (Robert Cuccioli), lives in a beautiful home on the main line of Philadelphia. He describes himself as a “numbers man”, whose day jobs involves financial management. His wife, Roz (Susan McKey) is an English teacher in the rough part of the city.  Their son, Christopher (Jonathan Silver) and his new bride, Molly (Jessica Bedford), appear to be following in the same footsteps of success as their parents.   The four of them have deep, and occasionally contentious arguments about race and equality.  While Graham keeps the dialogue moving, the family chatter is not what makes this so compelling. What is most compelling is the relationship that that Ray has with Shantique.

Photo by Matt Urban/Mobius New Media Inc.
Photo by Matt Urban/Mobius New Media Inc.

Within the first 30 minutes, you’ll be asking yourself why such a high roller is relying on public transportation. To reveal the reason is to disclose too much of the plot. But there is a valid-and troubling-purpose.

White Guy On the Bus is without a doubt, a provocative piece of theater and it manages to make a loud point without preaching. Director Bud Martin has assembled a fine cast, all of whom should be commended for tackling this fearless play. Graham’s point shouldn’t be muddied, however:  It is not the acquisition and accumulation of wealth that is on trial here. Instead, it is the refusal to admit that opportunity doesn’t happen for everyone and that the oblivion to income disparity is the real crime.

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Photo by Will Gangi.
Photo by Will Gangi.

There are even more lessons to be learned in Studio B with Bated Breath Theater Company’s excoriation of the art world.  Mara Lieberman’s Beneath the Gavel exposes audiences to the high end world of art auctioneering, particularly at Christie’s and Sotheby’s.  It is an ideal setting for the play, given the fact that-as Tracey (Missy Burmeister), the auctioneer states, “Auctions are about theatre! This is about smoke and mirrors.”

The immersive piece invites audiences to take bidding paddles, quirky glasses, and gobs of play cash, in order to invest in a rare piece of art from Daniel Ziegler (Corey Finzel). The most cherished of his works is “Haddie Without Shawl”

Tracey takes audiences behind the scenes, unveiling all of the mysteries that surround the sale of a collection. Interspersed through the piece are well-known artists whose works are world famous. Warhol is here. So is Lichtenstein, Kandinsky, and Pollack.  Prolific art dealer Leo Castelli is also on hand for the proceedings.

Not everyone has arrived at the party, however. There are glaring omissions of female representation, many of whom were contemporaries of the aforementioned artists. Annie Leibovitz, Yayoi Kusama, Jenny Saville, and Marina DeBris are just a few. In a male dominated profession, Lieberman may wish to consider including them in future rewrites of her play.

Photo by Will Gangi.
Photo by Will Gangi.

Lieberman, who also directs, has assembled an able cast who keep the action brisk and lively. There are no real stand out performances but collectively, this ensemble is able to deliver the goods. Like Piero Monzoni’s “Artist’s Sh**”, which is exactly what it sounds like, there are far worse things you could spend money to watch.

White Guy On the Bus plays through April 16th in Theater A. Beneath the Gavel runs through April 9th in Theater B.  Both shows can be seen at 59E59th Street Theaters between Madison and Park.