Monday, October 21, 2019

The Thanksgiving Play: Satirical Blur

Jesse Hinson and Amanda Collins in The Thanksgiving Play at Boston's Lyric Stage. (Photo: Glen Perry)

The idea behind Larissa Fasthorse’s The Thanksgiving Play, which is receiving its Boston premiere at Lyric Stage (Playwrights Horizon staged the world premiere last year), is delectable. A high school drama teacher named Logan (Amanda Collins) has received several grants to devise and direct a Thanksgiving play, to be performed for her students, that is sensitive to all the contemporary liberal concerns. She has assembled three collaborators who will double as her fellow performers – Jaxton (Jesse Hinson), her sort-of boyfriend, who calls himself a professional actor but whose entire résumé seems to consist of street performances; an elementary schoolteacher named Caden (Barlow Adamson) with a passion for history who has done extensive research on the history of the holiday; and Alicia (Grace Experience), an actress whose Native American background was the linchpin assuring that Logan would be awarded one of those grants. But at the first rehearsal Logan discovers that Alicia isn’t native at all; she’s vaguely ethnic – she probably has some Spanish in her genes – and has amassed a series of head shots that make her look like she can play characters from a variety of cultures. It’s a promising joke; Fasthorse’s satirical point is that the effort of woke white folks like Logan and Jaxton to do obeisance to all the current PC mandates (like the one against cultural appropriation) and popular assumptions of guilt (like the notion that any straight white person is de facto an abuser of privilege) ends up getting them hopelessly entangled in contradictions.

But The Thanksgiving Play delivers only occasionally on that promise. It’s clumsy, with a mere wisp of dramatic structure, and it gets off track so frequently that you’re not always sure of the dramatic point of a scene. Fasthorse conducts a kind of everything-but-the-kitchen-sink dramaturgical approach to the material. Logan and Jaxton’s political hypersensitivity is a constant, as is her terror that if she makes a mistake she’ll end up losing her grants or possibly her job. Caden’s devotion to historical accuracy is at least peripherally related to the satire, but Alicia’s dopiness takes up much of the text, and though it’s pretty funny it feels like it comes from some other play. Logan’s various efforts to find a way to make the project work don’t feel linked; you can’t see how she and her partners in crime got from one to the next. At one point Jaxton and Caden improvise a gruesome scene involving the decapitated heads of natives: Logan’s appalled response gets a good laugh but it doesn’t make any sense that an elementary schoolteacher and an actor who is Logan’s kindred spirit (and, we gather, frequent collaborator) would imagine for a nanosecond that this might be a good idea for a scene in a Thanksgiving play, let alone one intended for adolescent audiences.

Hinson isn’t very convincing, though since his character is a series of PC platitudes I’m not sure how an actor could pull it off. (Perhaps by making him either less of a cliché or considerably more outrageous?) The other three actors fare better, but only Experience’s performance works throughout. I admired Experience in Lyric Stage’s production of The Wolves last season where, coincidentally, she played another character whose cultural identity is misunderstood – an Armenian on a teen girls’ soccer team one of whose fellow players thinks that, because her family likes to take vacations in Mexico, she must be a Mexican immigrant. The direction by Scott Edmiston doesn’t try for stylistic consistency; like the play itself, it mostly just goes for easy laughs. It’s likely Fasthorse’s fault that some scenes are simply baffling, but neither Edmiston’s staging nor his work with the actors makes them any clearer. The Thanksgiving Play is mostly a missed opportunity.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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