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All the Natalie Portmans

Theatre Review by David Hurst - February 24, 2020

Joshua Boone and Kara Young
Photo by Daniel J. Vasquez
Turning the structure of the classic kitchen-sink drama on its proverbial ear, playwright C.A. Johnson's new drama at MCC Theater, All the Natalie Portmans, is a raw, blistering play that's as hopeful as it is devastating. Directed with alacrity and an eye for subtlety by Kate Whoriskey, Johnson's "love letter addressed to every queer girl struggling to actualize her dreams and every poor Black family fighting to love one another despite the onslaught," is beautifully realized by a superb cast led by incandescent Kara Young as Keyonna, a whip-smart 16-year-old lesbian who just happens to have film actress Natalie Portman as her imaginary friend. Take that August Wilson and Lorraine Hansberry!

Set in Northeast Washington, D.C., in 2009, All the Natalie Portmans is the story of Keyonna (Young) and her older brother Samuel (Joshua Boone), who are living hand-to-mouth with their alcoholic mother Ovetta (Montego Glover). The family has never recovered from their father's sudden death due a heart attack, and Ovetta, who works as a hotel housekeeper, is a broken, dysfunctional wreck, unable to care for her children or keep the rent paid on their $800 per month apartment.

To cope with her shattered life, Keyonna excels at advanced placement high school courses that are too easy for her, and escapes into a fantasy world of Hollywood where she writes dazzling screenplays for beautiful women like Natalie Portman. Natalie (Elise Kibler) regularly appears to Keyonna to offer encouragement and advice, always attired as the characters in her films (a working knowledge of Portman's screen oeuvre is a fun bonus but unnecessary to the play's enjoyment). I would point out, however, that Natalie's first appearance as her character Nina Sayers in Black Swan is an anachronism, since that film was released in 2010 and the play is set in 2009.

The object of Keyonna's affection is beautiful family friend Chantal (Renika Williams), who has started a relationship with Samuel because she's too scared to act on her feelings for Keyonna. Bit by bit, Keyonna and Samuel's lives spiral out of control as they contend with potential homelessness and divided loyalties over Chantal's affections.

Though the play could use some judicious trimming, the physical production is appropriately shabby and the cast is excellent. Kara Young, a standout in the recent Halfway Bitches Go Straight To Heaven at the Atlantic, carries the production on her diminutive shoulders with grit and moxie. She makes even the tenuous existence of Natalie Portman, as well as some of the more questionable dialogue between Keyonna and Samuel, more believable than it deserves. Boone and Williams both provide solid support, and Tony-nominee Glover, known primarily for her musical theatre work, is a revelation as an angry, bitter mother trying to keep body and soul together.

And in the impossible role of Natalie Portman, Elise Kibler admirably keeps things understated and light. Strangely, Portman's stage work is never referenced, despite the fact she appeared on the boards several times. If Johnson's play moves, or is filmed, wouldn't it be delicious if Natalie Portman agreed to play Natalie Portman? Talk about art imitating life, imitating art.

All the Natalie Portmans
Through March 15, 2020
Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space, 511 West 52nd Street and 10th Avenue
Tickets online and current performance schedule: