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Who's the Bully in From White Plains at MATCH?

Wesley Whitson (left) as Dennis and Greg Cote as Ethan in Thunderclap Productions' From White PlainsEXPAND
Wesley Whitson (left) as Dennis and Greg Cote as Ethan in Thunderclap Productions' From White Plains
Photo by Aaron Alon

Thunderclap Productions, who's that?

Weeks ago, I received an Evite to review their latest show, From White Plains, at Midtown Arts and Theater Center Houston. Latest? Who are they, and what other shows have I missed?

I looked them up. Oh, that company...

Thunderclap has such a sketchy production history – few and far between – that I had forgotten I had seen and reviewed two of their previous shows from years past: Death, the Musical and Rum and Vodka. Death was instantly forgettable, but Rum has haunted me still. An early work from Irish playwright Conor McPherson, Rum is a one-man monologue that wallows in the downward trajectory of The Man (Andy Ingalls) during a very boozy weekend in Dublin. Ingalls was incandescent in the role, absolutely mesmerizing, dangerous, unforgettable. For that part, he won “Best Trooper” in our inaugural Houston Theater Awards, 2012.

Fortunately, Thunderclap is still with us, bursting into our consciousness every two years or so, or whenever they have the financial resources to mount a show for a limited run. Their last venture was the independent short film musical Bully (2017), written and directed by Aaron Alon, co-founder and president of the board, which has garnered numerous accolades from various international film festivals. It stared a slew of Houston talents: Amy Buchanan, Brad Goertz, Nora Hahn, Steve Hale, Danica Dawn Johnston, Amanda Passanante, Michael J. Ross, Karen Schlag, Tamara Siler, Kiefer Slaton.

Here's Thunderclap's latest delicacy: Michael Perlman's From White Plains, which had a quick run off-Broadway in 2013. It's finely done, intriguing, and a worthy stage bookend to Bully, which detailed the suicide of a gay highschooler.

Indie filmmaker Dennis (Wesley Whitson) wins an Academy Award for his semi-autobiographical screenplay, and during his emotional acceptance speech outs the high school bully, Ethan (Greg Cote), who drove Dennis' young friend Mitchell to suicide. Ethan's life goes into a tailspin. Social media crucifies him, he loses his job from the noxious publicity, his girlfriend won't return his calls, and he engages in an online forgiveness rant with Dennis, who's intent on destroying whatever vestige of humanity Ethan still possesses.

In his righteous rampage, Dennis now becomes the bully. His still-in-the-closet, sympathetic lover Gregory (Domonique L. Champion) tries to calm him but is rebuffed by Dennis' maniacal, almost biblical retaliation. Ethan's best friend John (Noah Alderfer), who'd been bullied years ago and still bears the brunt of Ethan's mocking gay insinuations, turns away from his old friend, leaving Ethan rudderless and forsaken.

A chance meeting on a NY subway between John and Gregory is pure fairy tale, as is Ethan's agreement to meet Dennis on a daytime TV show to air grievances and possibly make amends, but Perlman strongly argues that history must be made right, sins must be atoned, and retribution must be paid. Can the past be so easily forgiven if a life has been snuffed out?

The ending is misty and inconclusive, not quite the closure we're hoping for, but the exceptional cast and the finely-tuned direction from Lily Wolff engages us on a subliminal level which is greatly pleasing. I like how she stages this quartet of confrontation – the characters never quite leave our view. They stand off to the side, ready to pounce and react. There's no down time. Everything's minimal: Benjamin Mason's sparse set of sofa, coffee table, and stand-alone bar table, offset by his effective lighting, whose edges dim appropriately when focused on the central playing area; Victoria Nicolette Gist's contempo costumes of skinny jeans and Ethan's shlumpy outfit; and Alon's pin-spot sound design with its hardcore disco intro and electronic cellphone beeps.

The cast is wondrous. Cote is terribly wounded, frightened, and blustery as Ethan, not sure how to make amends for past mistakes. Whitson, as avenging angel Dennis, would blister the scenery if there were any. Alderfer, as subservient John, might be the best character of all, but Perlman breezes by him, not giving him the treatment this saddest of guys deserves. This character needs his own play, yet Alderfer brings such tenderness to him that we know why he turned out as he did. It's a precisely nuanced performance, full of shattered heartbreak, wounded pride, battered ego.

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And then there is Champion, as repressed lover Gregory. If you were lucky and saw his fearlessly campy Reverend Benson in Catastrophic Theatre's Bootycandy, you might not recognize him here. But he commands the stage with a laser focus that's uniquely remarkable. Understated but powerful, he gets under your skin just by standing there. We want more depth from author Perlman, but Champion dives deep to round him out and make us care. Gregory's the smart one in this play; he tries to stop Dennis from making a fool of himself. Whether he and Dennis get back together is unstated (his proposal scene is showstopping), but we're left with the impression that he and Gregory are a pair, whether Dennis knows it or not.

Having just seen the epic gay weepie The Inheritance in New York, it's ironic to see another LGBTQ show so soon. While not on the level of Matthew Lopez' stirring and tear-stained post-AIDS drama, Perlman transforms the act of gay bullying into a fierce and provocative rite of passage. In its own simple way, From White Plains is effective and justified.

We want more – and soon – from Thunderclap!

From White Plains continues through March 8 at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Sunday at the  MATCH, 3400 Main. For information, call 713-521-4533 or visit thunderclapproductions.com. or
boxoffice@matchouston.org. Pay What You Can suggested price, $25.

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