Just because a target’s too easy doesn’t mean it won’t make a satisfying meal.
Take turkeys, or the holiday they stand for. In Larissa FastHorse’s “The Thanksgiving Play,” which opened Monday at Playwrights Horizons, the familiar, whitewashed story of Pilgrims and Native Americans chowing down together gets a delicious roasting from expert farceurs.
But Thanksgiving is not the only object of the satire, and to the extent the play sometimes seems to miss its mark, it’s because the mark keeps moving.
Clearly, FastHorse, a member of the Sicangu Lakota nation of South Dakota, is aiming for a takedown of American mythology — white American mythology, that is. The national narcissism, bordering on sociopathy, that could turn theft and genocide into a feel-good feast is her play’s point of entry.
Also in her sights: cursory diversity initiatives that despite their good intentions impede real progress, particularly in the theater.
Of course, theater artists have long been treasured as juicy quarry for satire, with or without the politics. And the four who are gathered in “The Thanksgiving Play” are woeful even in the annals of backstage comedies like “The Producers,” “Noises Off” and “Stage Kiss.”
Logan (Jennifer Bareilles) is a drama teacher hoping to “devise” the best and most culturally sensitive elementary school Thanksgiving pageant ever, one that will honor Native American Heritage Month as well.
She’s also trying to restore her reputation after a recent production of “The Iceman Cometh” led 300 parents to sign a petition calling for her firing.
Assisting her is her boyfriend, Jaxton (Greg Keller), an actor, yoga dude and “vegan ally” whose gift to Logan on the first day of rehearsal is a Mason jar “made with recycled glass from broken windows in housing projects.” Also contributing is Caden (Jeffrey Bean), a third-grade teacher and frustrated playwright who suggests they open with a scene set 4,000 years ago.
Noting that all three of them are white — and mindful of the terms of her Go! Girls! Scholastic Leadership Mentorship grant — Logan has hired a genuine Los Angeles actor, Alicia, to “lift up” the Native American point of view. But Alicia (Margo Seibert) is more of a multipurpose “super-flexible” ethnic type than an actual indigenous person. Still, having been the third Jasmine understudy in “Aladdin” at Disneyland, she doesn’t see what all the fuss is about.
“Is Lumière a real candlestick?” she asks.
While processing that — and trying to deal with the effect the bubble-headed Alicia has on the men — Logan has to figure out whether it’s possible to create a Thanksgiving pageant sensitive to Native American concerns with no Native Americans in the room. After a series of tortured mental exercises, including improv sessions in a “world of yes,” she ends up reaching the illogical logical conclusion that the only way to honor the erasure of indigenous peoples is by erasing them again.
That isn’t as much of an exaggeration as it seems. The renowned Quebec theater director Robert Lepage was recently criticized for “Kanata,” a work about indigenous Canadians that somehow neglected to include any. And FastHorse says that the main obstacle she faces in having her plays about Native Americans produced is that companies find them “uncastable.”
“The Thanksgiving Play” is a clever workaround, written to be performed by an all-white cast and thus to make hay of an absence that would otherwise be a liability. Or perhaps what it means to make is mincemeat: The ridiculous agonizing of the four “teaching artists” produces brutal laughs at the expense of well-meaning liberals who conceal ordinary prejudice under the mask of “performative wokeness.” They want to help but in their fear of offending are the least helpful of all. That this aspect of the satire works as well as it does is a credit to the swift pacing of Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s production and the acuity of his casting. Keller, whose résumé is filled with slackers, bros and skeeves, concocts in Jaxton an artisanal blend of all three: sincere insincerity served in a Mason jar. Bareilles and Bean are both expert in letting their characters’ inner turmoil — exactly what they most hide — leak out.
But oddly it is Seibert as the dim Alicia, content to be pretty and confident in her shallow ambition, who delivers the deepest characterization. She may not really understand why a Native American is different from a candlestick, but she’s ready to act any scene put before her, especially if she gets to cry.
The problem for “The Thanksgiving Play” is that, in splitting its satirical attention, it shortchanges the nominal subject. Though the one-note wrangling of the teaching artists is amusing, the absence of characters who could meaningfully oppose their dead-end liberal agenda leaves a hole at the heart of the story. I sometimes had the sour feeling I get when watching hidden-camera videos of people behaving badly; a little goes a long way. Here, a lot goes too far.
That was FastHorse’s dramaturgical trade-off. And, by the way, there’s a lot of inside-theater comedy here, including jokes about dramaturges that may sail past civilians. It’s only when the play, in a series of skits between scenes, takes off its gloves and aims squarely at its real subject — racism — that the comedy becomes something more salient, if unfunny. These skits are selections from actual lesson plans and Pinterest boards posted by teachers to share ideas for classroom Thanksgiving activities. They include potted history and offensive ditties and, in one case, a suggestion to split the pupils into Pilgrims and Indians “so the Indians can practice sharing.”
Satire doesn’t get much richer than that.
“The Thanksgiving Play”
Tickets: Through Nov. 25 at Playwrights Horizons, Manhattan; 212-279-4200, playwrightshorizons.org.
Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes.
Credits: By Larissa FastHorse; directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel; sets by Wilson Chin; costumes and puppets by Tilly Grimes; lighting by Isabella Byrd; sound by Mikaal Sulaiman; production stage manager, Katie Ailinger; associate artistic director, Adam Greenfield. Presented by Playwrights Horizons, Tim Sanford, artistic director, Leslie Marcus, managing director, Carol Fishman, general manager.
Cast: Jennifer Bareilles (Logan), Jeffrey Bean (Caden), Greg Keller (Jaxton) and Margo Seibert (Alicia).
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