By Larissa FastHorse; Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel
Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 11.25.18
Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street
by Ken Kaissar on 11.5.18
Jennifer Bareilles and Margo Seibert in The Thanksgiving Play. Photo by Joan Marcus.
BOTTOM LINE: A hilarious satire of PC culture that explores the often ignored narrative surrounding Thanksgiving.
Right-wing fundamentalists get a great deal of criticism from those of us on the left, but are liberal fundamentalists any less obnoxious? From the guffaws that I heard almost unanimously at The Thanksgiving Play, it’s clear that the audience at Playwrights Horizons doesn’t think so. Apparently even liberal New Yorkers get annoyed around people who can’t stop going on about trigger words, safe spaces, positive energy, recycling, and veganism.
Playwright Larissa FastHorse derives a great deal of humor from the assumption that we’re tired of being bombarded by these concepts, and those who cling to them ad nauseam are the butt of her relentless jokes. In her program note, FastHorse explains that her play includes “real people, primarily liberal, well-meaning folks...deeply flawed and fighting for things with a ferocity that is beautiful and tragic.” Her characters do indeed fight, and they are both beautiful and tragic. But do their good intentions cause more conflict and destruction than they prevent?
Logan (the hilarious Jennifer Bareilles) is a high school drama teacher whose charge is to direct a play about Thanksgiving for her elementary school children. Of course, she is hell-bent on including more than one point of view on the holiday’s story, so she takes great pains to hire an actress of Native American descent. Enter Alicia (Margo Seibert), an actress of English and French ancestry, but whose look is flexible; she has headshots appropriate for several ethnicities, including Native American. Logan is tipped off that something is awry when she asks Alicia to share her “people’s” Thanksgiving traditions, and to her horror, Alicia describes a made-up game using a frozen turkey as a bowling ball. And so four apologetic white people set off to create a Thanksgiving play that gives a voice to the voiceless Native Americans. The result is kind-hearted buffoonery. As scripture says, “Forgive them Lord, for they know not what they do.”
As usual, Playwrights Horizons serves a first-rate production. The cast consists of four comic geniuses, with women driving the comedy for a change and the men (Greg Keller and Jeffrey Bean) supporting them. Bareilles plays a liberal fanatic with such an earnest, open heart that you can’t help simultaneously gagging and wanting to give her a hug. Seibert is hilarious as a clueless actress who takes great pride in the fact that she’s not smart. That’s another point for FastHorse, who slaps us for our own snotty superiority as we laugh at Seibert’s character with derision.
Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel, who may be New York’s foremost comedy director these days, masterfully creates a sense of well-choreographed chaos. His work is so effective and invisible that I was almost lulled into omitting him from this review. When I remembered to check who directed, my response was “Of course, Moritz von Stuelpnagel.” The design team is also in top form. Wilson Chin’s set design is so true to life that the production feels like an optical illusion: Instead of the curtain rising on a stage, it feels as though Chin has moved an elementary school classroom and placed it behind the curtain. No detail is spared, including the annoying windows that only open to an acute angle on a day when the heating system is working too well. And Tilly Grimes is clearly the star of the show with costume and puppet design that dresses actors up like turkeys, gun-toting pilgrims and subjugated Native Americans.
Clearly FastHorse, a Native American playwright, wrote this piece to underscore the cruel history that we fail to acknowledge as we give our thanks on this all-American holiday. She’s savvy enough to use comedy to deliver her message most effectively. But her play makes a deeper statement than even she may have originally intended. As the characters argue about and fight for the play they want to create, their efforts devolve into violence and destruction. As some continue to insist that all Americans adopt our values without compromise, might we be doing harm as well? It was a thought that made it hard for me to laugh on the eve of Election Day 2018.
(The Thanksgiving Play plays at Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, through November 25, 2018. The running time is 90 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30; Saturdays at 2:00 and 7:30; and Sundays at 2 and 7. Tickets are $49 - $89 and are available at phnyc.org.)
The Thanksgiving Play is by Larissa FastHorse. Directed by Mortiz von Stuelpnagel. Set Design by Wilson Chin. Costume and Puppet Design by Tilly Grimes. Lighting Design by Isabella Byrd. Sound Design by Mikaal Sulaiman. Stage Manager is Katie Ailinger.
The cast is Jennifer Bareilles, Jeffrey Bean, Greg Keller, and Margo Seibert.