By Larissa Fasthorse; Directed by Rachel Chavkin
Produced by Second Stage
Extended through 6.11.23
Hayes Theatre, 240 West 44th Street
by Max Berry on 4.26.23
L-R: D'Arcy Carden, Chris Sullivan, Katie Finneran, and Scott Foley in The Thanksgiving Play. Photo by Joan Marcus.
BOTTOM LINE: The Thanksgiving Play is a hilarious and damning look at white liberals through the lens of trying to put on a politically correct play for school kids.
Written by Larissa Fasthorse and directed by Rachel Chavkin, The Thanksgiving Play tells the story of a group of white liberal educators struggling to put on an age-appropriate Thanksgiving play that doesn’t present a white-washed version of history. Although they've hired a professional actress (the hilarious D’Arcy Carden), they soon discover this task might be more difficult than they initially thought.
The school's theatre teacher Logan (Katie Finneran) is on the verge of getting fired, so she works with local actor Jaxton—who also happens to be her boyfriend (Scott Foley), and elementary school teacher/amateur historian/aspiring playwright Caden (Chris Sullivan), to devise a new, socially conscious Thanksgiving play to win the favor of her school and the parents. And of course, there is Alicia, that professional actress played by Carden—Logan hired her because she believed Alicia was Native American, and of course having a "Native voice" is essential for telling an accurate story of Thanksgiving. Super simple—what could possibly go wrong?
The real genius of The Thanksgiving Play is its portrayal of a well-meaning group struggling to devise a play that checks all of their boxes, yet where each moment is more excruciatingly cringey than the last. Political theatre can often operate in a sort of echo chamber, where an eager audience who already believes the message nods along, feeling proud of themselves for “getting it." That is not this play. Those who normally might feel secure, and enjoy applauding to show just how good they are, may well squirm a bit. Maybe squirm a lot.
The Thanksgiving Play is a hilarious call out to those who normally feel safe from being the butt of the joke. Every line is soaked in what I can only describe as “woke vernacular.” And it’s spot on. As the play continues we see the main characters bumbling along, desperately trying to do no harm to Native Americans (and to be clear, none are in the room). Yet the play doesn’t rely on this woke vernacular to make its point. The story itself is brilliantly simple and thus allows for these ideas to be explored, and the character relationships to build, easily and effectively.
The performances are all top notch. Each actor takes advantage of their moment to shine while also working off of the others brilliantly. Finneran plays the slowly unraveling leader beautifully. Foley and Sullivan add to the chaos and give stellar performances, adding to the hilarity with a sincerity in their actions that makes the increasingly absurd situation all the more effective. And of course Carden, playing the oblivious actress, doesn’t miss a beat with her spot-on comedic timing.
Overall, the play is a great success at what it is trying to do. My only gripe (and it’s a small one) is that while the “woke vernacular” is well done and accurate, after about 30-40 minutes of non-stop woke-speak, it almost gets tiring. Rather than building gradually to a climax, it continues at more or less the same level for much of the play. That said, just as I was about to jump ship, we get a scene that is shocking, uncomfortable, and awful—all at the same time—allowing the desperation and exasperation of trying to put together this play to fully take over.
The Thanksgiving Play is a hilarious challenge to those white liberals who often sit comfortable in their theatre seats, as well as to those theaters who claim they want to do better. All four actors play their roles to perfection and, despite a slight drag in the middle (which at least allows space to take in the incredible set design by Riccardo Hernandez, with props by Andrew Diaz—those theatre posters are terrific), by the end you’ll not be sure if you should laugh, sigh, or both.
(The Thanksgiving Play plays at the Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th Street, through June 11, 2023. The running time is 90 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Tuesdays at 7; Wednesdays at 2 and 7; Thursdays at 7; Fridays at 8; Saturdays at 2 and 8; and Sundays at 1. Masks are required on Wednesday matinees. Tickets are $59 - $169; premium tickets are also available. For tickets and more information, visit 2st.com.)
The Thanksgiving Play is by Larissa Fasthorse. Directed by Rachel Chavkin. Set Design by Riccardo Hernandez. Costume Design by Lux Haac. Lighting Design by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew. Sound Design by Mikaal Sulaiman. Projection Design by David Bengali. Hair and Makeup Design by Brittany Hartman. Production Props by Andrew Diaz. Production Stage Manager is John C. Moore.
The cast is D'Arcy Carden, Katie Finneran, Scott Foley, and Chris Sullivan.