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The Thanksgiving Play

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - November 5, 2018

Margo Seibert, Greg Keller, Jennifer Bareilles, and Jeffrey Bean
Photo by Joan Marcus

Tricky business, political correctness. You want to undo the inequities of the past, give equal voice to groups that previously never had it, celebrate difference while encouraging the we-are-all-brothers construct. And wherever you step, there's a minefield. Messages get scrambled, the most mundane statement can be offensive to some ears, and if you're an artist, there are fellowships and grants that come with causey strings attached. Such is the world we're given in The Thanksgiving Play, Larissa FastHorse's extremely amusing and thoughtful satire of all of the above, now on jolly display at Playwrights Horizons. It opens with four actors in front of an orange, high-school-looking curtain, in tatty Thanksgiving finery, offering a tacky Turkey Day rendition of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" ("seven Native tom-toms, six Native tepees, five pairs of moccasinsÂ…"). And it gets funnier from there.

When that curtain parted, it made me nervous. It revealed a schoolroom set, Wilson Chin's, very like the one Amy Rubin did for Miles for Mary in the same theater last season, a comedy everybody else loved and I hated. Look closely, though, and you'll see some odd touches. It's a drama classroom, and there are posters for past productions at this high school, including Extremities, Angels in America, and Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. The mind boggles. Clearly an ambitious presence is behind these efforts, and that's Logan (Jennifer Bareilles), the director of the upcoming Thanksgiving play. She's New Agey, vegan, a failed actress who refocused on educational theater, seeing it as a way to expand minds, redress wrongs, and, not least, win acclaim for herself. Aided by her equally earnest boyfriend, Jaxton (Greg Keller), a barefoot, yoga-dependent street performer with acting aspirations that clearly won't be realized, she aims to present a Thanksgiving play that will tear down the white-guy constructs that endured for centuries and willfully misrepresented the Native American view. It's the right thing to do. Plus, the show's being partially funded by a Native American Heritage Month Awareness Through Art grant. (And a bunch of others — FastHorse's grant names are hilarious.)

That means engaging an Indigenous actor, so Logan hires Alicia (Margo Seibert), whom she saw in a head shot in braids and a turquoise necklace. She's from L.A., she's expensive, and, it turns out, she's not Native American, just able to play multiple ethnicities. Bam, the grant money is threatened. Then there's Caden (Jeffrey Bean), the fourth member of the troupe, an elementary school history teacher who dreams of being a playwright and isn't real patient with other viewpoints. Four very distinct personalities: all-business-but-insecure Logan, politically-correct-to-a-fault Jaxton, history-loving Caden, and Alicia, a sexy dumb blonde who distracts both the guys. Sexy dumb blondes are nothing new, but what Seibert does is fresh: She emphasizes how Alicia gets past the pretensions and overthinking of the characters around her, and makes stupidity appealing. Think Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot. And Seibert has similar comic instincts.

So, how do four white folks of varying backgrounds, concerns, and obsessions tell the story MGM told badly in Plymouth Adventure, in a way that respects and includes all relevant cultures, doesn't toy with facts, appeals to kids, and doesn't piss off parents? That's FastHorse's comic landscape, and it's richer than you can imagine. First, she knows how to lay the groundwork to set off fireworks: Logan's funding worries, her sometimes-shaky vibe with Jaxton, their verbal commitment to each other vs. their need to self-validate, Alicia's vacant yet somehow profound observations, Caden's insistence on historical accuracy vs. his appetite for the spotlight vs. his ogling of Alicia. Second, she knows how to set up a joke. (Alicia: "Oh, you're a couple. I did not get that." Logan: "Jaxton and I share a mutually respectful relationship." Alicia: "So you're not a couple?")

They all want to do the correct thing, but what the correct thing is in these days of so many subcultures vying for attention on so many forms of social media is complicated. The four stumble through some improvisations, rewrite Caden's stiff dialog, debate the validity of colorblind casting, and arrive at a solution that's as satisfying to them as it is ridiculous to us. Interspersed are sequences of actual Thanksgiving drama efforts from different perspectives around the country, which FastHorse grabbed off Pinterest, like the "Twelve Days" prologue, as specious as they are well-intentioned.

It's a nimble production, directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel with the same comic verve he exhibited in Hand to God, and acted by a quartet that are in exquisite sync. If Bareilles could perhaps mine more self-doubt out of Logan, and if Keller's rasp is sometimes hard to hear (did he have a cold?), everybody knows when to be the focus of attention and when to back off. Tilly Grimes's costumes are just right for this bunch (she also designed some eye-catching puppets), and Isabella Boyd's harsh lighting rekindles some of our worst memories of high school.

FastHorse, who has a Lakota father and a Norwegian mom and whose program note and interview handout in the lobby are both worth reading, raises tough questions even as she keeps us laughing. Who deserves a voice? When we appropriate and reinterpret others' perspectives, are we being fair? How objective are historians, and what are their sub-motives? Is political correctness a positive force? Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.

The Thanksgiving Play
Through November 25
Playwrights Horizons' Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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