|THE THANKSGIVING PLAY|
Larissa FastHorse has a bone to pick – and it’s not the one in the turkey. In “The Thanksgiving Play,” her pointed satire now making a belated Broadway debut via Second Stage at the Helen Hayes Theatre, FastHorse (a Native American of the Sicangu Lakota Nation) wants to remind us that we (aka white people) have either virtually eradicated Native Americans from our celebrations of Thanskgiving or made them the giver of thanks rather than the recipients they were.
Further, FastHorse takes great pleasure in pointing out that we (again, white people) have become so “woke” in trying to correct our failings that common sense often gets thrown out the window as easily as footballs get tossed around the lawn after a big holiday dinner. It’s arguably hard to argue with either of these theses.
Nonetheless, one wishes she had found a more subtle way to make her points than this sometimes hilarious but ultimately overlong 90-minute sketch, which too often feels like something concocted on Friday night in the “Saturday Night Live” writers’ room just to gain easy laughs. Nor does the play benefit from Rachel Chavkin’s overly kinetic and badly designed production. (In fact, Riccardo Hernandez’s overstuffed classroom set blocks some audience member’s views.)
Worse yet, four super-talented actors – Katie Finneran, Scott Foley, Chris Sullivan and D’Arcy Carden -- have been asked to dial their performances up to 11, when 9 or 10 would have done just as well. (In case you’re curious, there are no Native American actors in the play because, as FastHorse has stated in interviews, her previous plays with such actors made them hard to produce commercially.)
In any case, FastHorse’s premise is undeniably clever. Logan (the amazing Finneran, who does exasperation better than anyone on the planet) is a “failed” actress turned Iowa high school teacher who is trying to retain her endangered job by putting on a Thanksgiving play that will suitably honor the Native American population (none of whom live near her or go to her school). A committed vegan, Logan is perhaps the not the best choice to create a play celebrating what she calls “the holiday of death.” But whatever.
Logan is armed with a number of financial grants, but only three collaborators to help her “devise” the piece in question: Her overly-enlightened, yoga-loving boyfriend Jaxton (a deft Foley) – who will eventually reveal his barely-hidden “broness”; the frustrated (sexually and intellectually) history teacher Caden (a well-cast Sullivan); and Alicia (a very winning Carden), a none-too-bright professional actress from Los Angeles who uses her body and her naivete to get what she wants, which eventually includes the adoration of all the other characters.
By the way, Alicia is not -- as Logan has mistakenly assumed -- Native American. She’s simply a multi-ethnic type who casting directors (apparently fooled by her variety of headshots) use rather than hiring “the real thing.” And why not? Alicia swears Disney World audiences believed her as Jasmine in “Aladdin” (when she went on since she was the third understudy).
So, once it’s determined (through an idiotic if sometimes laugh-inducing set of arguments) that it would be “wrong” to have Alicia in “redface,” the trio set about finding other ways of presenting their drama. They range from utilizing a historically accurate script Caden has painstakingly written (and which would be painful to watch) to a play where Native Americans are represented by imaginary silent figures at a dinner table (equally painful) to the eventual, truly ridiculous solution -- which I suspect in real life would not please FastHorse nor anyone else.
Still, that final “play”’ is far better than the brief videos we occasionally watch, based on real things FastHorse found on the Internet. These very funny if somewhat horrifying vignettes show fictional students (portrayed by Mollie Fink, Dasan Turner. Ishan DeSilva and Atticus Scott Williamson) singing a politically tone-deaf version of “The 12 Days of Thanksgiving”; enacting a scene in which the pilgrims actually shoot the turkeys; and an all-female punk band shouting “Home on the Range.” Talk about teachable moments.
As it happens, though, none of these would be out of place on “SNL” either. Perhaps FastHorse should make a run for 30 Rock and leave Broadway behind.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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