‘Distances’ Review: Fumblingly Picking at the Knot of Race
Laura Collins-Hughes, New York Times

“When did you first realize that you were white?”

In “Distances Smaller Than This Are Not Confirmed,” David Neumann and Marcella Murray’s quiet, experimental dialogue about race, the question comes up again and again — she, a young black woman, posing it to him, a middle-aged white man who cannot answer it. Not that he doesn’t try, grasping for childhood anecdotes like the time in second grade that he mispronounced Niger and spurred a classroom lecture on civil rights.

When did Murray first realize she was black? Neumann asks, and her answer is instantaneous, her calm certainty in perfect counterpoint to his squirming self-consciousness.

“I always know,” she says. “And of course I always knew.”

The difficulty that white people and people of color have in talking about race together is the knot that this Advanced Beginner Group production picks at, fumblingly — a snarl as sensitive as nerve endings, and as American as our nation’s history.

photo: Brian Rogers

“You know how at the root of everything we don’t say to each other is slavery?” Murray asks.

“Mm-hm!” Neumann says, the brightness of his tone betraying that he has no idea.

He is playing a role, by the way — so is she — the conceit being that they are on a talk show, which we see live and on video: she as the guest, a science fiction writer; he as the host, too enamored of his own thoughts to stop himself from talking over her. (Are they meant to be in outer space, having slipped the bonds of gravity to discuss another force, racism, that weighs heavily? I think so? Maybe?)

Presented with the Chocolate Factory Theater at Abrons Arts Center, “Distances” is more interesting than illuminating. But there are moments of real beauty, as in a pair of overlapping monologues that twine around each other like vines. There are also too-brief interludes of oxygenating dance, which get all four cast members (Hyung Seok Jeon, who designed the video, and Julius Powell play supporting roles) on their feet.

The piece, which has original music by Stew [and overall sound design by Tei Blow], grew out of discussions that Murray and Neumann have been having for several years, beginning at Sarah Lawrence College, where he is a professor and she recently got her M.F.A. It’s striking that these co-creators occupy such different places in the power structure of theater and the wider culture, and not only in age, race and gender.

Neumann, who was the movement director on Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” and got a Tony Award nomination for his “Hadestown” choreography, is the artistic director of Advanced Beginner Group.

Murray is just starting out, and in “Distances” she is doing so assertively, with a cool, steady gaze that suggests embers burning underneath. True, there is a sense that she is meant to school Neumann, and by extension a good chunk of the audience. Not by parading any personal trauma, though, and usually not by explaining things that he, and they, ought to be able to figure out. Her end of the dialogue is more matter-of-fact, and sometimes more Socratic, than that.

As damning as it sounds, “Distances” has a whiff of earnestness, but it is the earnestness of artists in pursuit of human understanding. In these hair-trigger times, when enmity is easy, there is value in that.

Laura Collins-Hughes for the New York Times – January 16, 2020