The large on-screen Twitter scroll that is used to aid the explosive conclusion to J.C. Lee’s “Relevance,” now being presented by MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortel, proves to be an all-too-apt metaphor for this ambitious, problematic new play about feminism, racism and ageism (among other topics). Indeed, a viewer can no more keep up with the swift, steady stream of comments than one can with the overwhelming amount of ideas presented by Lee over 90 minutes.
And much like what you read on Twitter, some of Lee’s dialogue – especially at the end – defies both logic and credulity. While the author (best known for his work on such TV shows as “How to Get Away With Murder” and “Looking”) clearly has a lot on his mind, Lee can’t quite articulate all of it in a satisfying fashion. The work – set at a literary and culture conference that focuses on feminism – is often fascinating, but is sometimes too dense for its own good. (The scenes set as part of the actual conference are way too academic to be easily digested.)
The play’s shortcomings cannot be blamed, however, on the superb efforts of its four-person cast, expertly guided by directed Liesl Tommy. Chief among them is Tony Award winner Jayne Houdyshell in yet another awe-inspiring performance as Theresa Hannick, a groundbreaking feminist of a certain age who is on hand to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award.
Theresa, who is used to dominating any conversation (personal or professional), finds herself on uncertain ground when she is upstaged by the charismatic up-and-comer Msemaji (an excellent Pascale Armand), a young African-American woman who claims to come from a background of poverty and personal abuse (all to topical in the #Metoo world).
When she challenges Teresa (and the whole female community) to adopt a new way of thinking, her incendiary comments become the cause celebre of the Internet –thanks to YouTube, Twitter and an influential blogger – causing Theresa to devise a questionable strategy to reclaim both the conversation and her position. And while she insists her actions are all in the name of truth and justice, both Lee and Houdyshell (in a sometimes purposely unsympathetic turn) never let us forget that it is pride that truly goeth before the fall.
Caught in the middle of the crossfire are conference administrator Dr. Kelly Taylor (an effective Molly Camp), who presents herself as Theresa’s ally but ultimately cares more about her own position in academia than either Theresa or Msemaji, and David (the invaluable Richard Masur), Theresa’s savvy agent and ex-lover who predictably chooses money over loyalty.
Both characters, while intriguing, almost seem incidental to the play, which really comes most alive in the confrontations between Theresa and Msemaji. And while watching one woman trying to discredit another in these politically-charged times will feel particularly troublesome, it’s also a painful reminder (much like Twitter) that on almost any issue imaginable, the U.S. remains a country divided.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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Starring Jayne Houdyshell, Pascale Armand, Molly Camp, and Richard Masur
Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher Street
New York, NY 10014