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Theatre Review by David Hurst - February 25, 2018

Jayne Houdyshell
Photo by Joan Marcus

Until its ending, which fizzles disappointingly, JC Lee's Relevance, a provocative new drama about the search for truth in a social-media drenched world of feminist politics, is terrific. Adroitly directed by Liesl Tommy on a sleek set by Clint Ramos, Relevance pits Theresa Hanneck (Jayne Houdyshell), a celebrated old-guard intellectual who is white, against Msemaji Ukweli (Pascale Armand), the new-guard's rising star who is black. Their battle for relevance and internet-dominance plays out like a high-stakes chess match, but it's a match that quickly spirals out of control with calamitous results.

Gathered for a weekend conference which will culminate with Theresa receiving a lifetime achievement award, a panel discussion being streamed live on the Internet takes an antagonist turn when Msemaji calls out Theresa for dominating the conversation and espousing rhetoric she views as no longer useful to the movement. Msemaji's on-line followers agree and pile-on Theresa with vitriolic criticism. In the aftermath of the panel, an angry and embarrassed Theresa confides in her agent, David (Richard Masur), with whom she had a long-running affair many years previous. David attempts to be the voice of reason but he has ulterior motives where Msemaji is concerned and Theresa appears intent on exposing her as a fraud. Theresa meets with the conference vice-chair, Kelly (Molly Camp), who had moderated the panel discussion, to undermine Msemaji's chances of winning a prestigious award but she doesn't realize the dye is cast and that everyone is on-board for Msemaji to become the new generation's voice on race, class and gender.

Msemaji's motives and Theresa's reaction to what she perceives as Msemaji's intellectual dishonesty lie at the heart of Relevance. But who is right and who is wrong? What is the truth and whose truth becomes fact, especially in an Internet age when people can reinvent themselves with a series of keystrokes. Though only a compact 100 intermission-less minutes, Relevance has a lot on its plate, including: racism, ageism, loyalty, intellectual discourse, feminist dogma and, perhaps most importantly, the use of social media as a means of self-promotion and reinvention. Central to the play's plot is the fact that Theresa has eschewed social media as a platform for communication while Msemaji has not only embraced social media, she's made it a powerful weapon in her ambitions to turn the tables on her elders, specifically Theresa.

At the risk of too many plot spoilers; suffice it to say Theresa and Msemaji's ideological argument come to a head in Theresa's acceptance speech for her lifetime achievement award. Unfortunately, it's at this point Lee's script careens off the cliff in spectacular fashion. Whether or not you agree with what Theresa ends up doing and saying will be the determining factor in whether you‘re on board for the play's conclusion or whether you're rolling your eyes in disbelief as this writer did. The play's suspense builds and builds during this tense scene but then Lee doesn't know how to end it so he detonates a nuclear bomb. As if that's not stupefying enough, a tacked on scene at the end in which the two women have yet another conversation with each other while waiting to go to the airport defies even more credulity.

Fortunately, the acting is superb across the boards. The wonderful Houdyshell, a Tony winner for The Humans, has been given a juicy role in Theresa and she deftly portrays a feminist intellectual trying desperately to salvage her literary reputation. Holding her own is Armand, a Tony nominee for Eclipsed, whose cagy performance as an ambitious and duplicitous woman who knows how to play everyone to her advantage is frighteningly realistic. The chasm between these women's races and ages is palpable and it's heartening that Lee, a young, white, gay playwright who's made his name writing for television on HBO's Looking and Girls, and ABC's How to Get Away with Murder, explores it with such uncommon insight. It's too bad that, like his play Luce at LCT3's Claire Tow in 2013 that also dealt with two women at odds over issues of race and the possible terrorist motivations of an adopted student, Relevance squanders its promise in the service of theatrical fireworks which don't ring true.

Through March 11
MCC Theater in residence at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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