(l to r) Jennifer Bareilles and Margo Seibert in ‘The Thanksgiving Play.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus)
By Matthew Wexler
The Thanksgiving Play, Playwrights Horizons’ inaugural attempt at producing work by a Native American author (Larissa FastHorse) is like going out on a first date with someone who looks terrific on paper but ultimately falls into the “let’s just be friends” category.
“Most theaters have never produced a play by a Native American person (including Playwrights Horizons) and their fears about doing it wrong or offending Natives are paralyzing,” says Ms. FastHorse, “But I need people to act and make a mistake so we can fix it and hopefully learn to do it better next time.” I’m embracing her bravery, admitting front and center that I’m a middle-aged, cisgender white man. I’ve got “gay” and “Jew” in my corner so I’ve had a fair share of insults thrown my way, but, nonetheless, I’m completely — and painfully aware these days — of my white privilege.
Such is the case for Logan (Jennifer Bareilles), a high school drama teacher who has received the “Gender Equity in History Grant, the Excellence in Educational Theater Fellowship, a municipal arts grant and the Go! Girls! Scholastic Leadership Mentorship” to create a devised work that re-examines our belief systems around the Thanksgiving holiday.
She’s hired boyfriend Jaxton (Greg Keller), a yoga practitioner/actor whose greatest gig to date is the local farmer’s market; Caden (Jeffrey Bean), an elementary school history teacher who arrives with reams of penned scenes documenting the real plight of Indigenous peoples throughout American history; and Alicia (Margo Seibert), an L.A.-based actress who markets herself as Native American. (“My agent had me take headshots as six different ethnic people, which got me many roles such as Jasmine,” she confesses when the truth comes out.)
Together, the quartet attempts to create a theater piece that speaks to the truth of our historic atrocities, punctuated by four interjections throughout that Ms. FastHorse culled “sadly from the Internet, mostly current teacher’s Pinterest boards.” Sad (and ridiculously inappropriate) they are, in one instance depicting turkeys singing about “Injuns” shooting themselves and in another lamenting about “the red man.”
Under Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s (Present Laughter, Hand to God) direction, The Thanksgiving Play moves at a brisk, dynamic pace, though its forced slapstick conclusion feels hollow after 90 minutes with the mostly surface-level characters. Its repetition echoes of bougie over-compensation (who remembers Portlandia’s famous “Is the chicken local” sketch?) and the Waiting for Guffman-esque amateur actor antics eventually become tiresome.
Of the four, Ms. Seibert fares best at carving out an authentic performance. The actress, who made her Broadway debut in the short-lived Rocky musical, recently released her debut solo album 77th Street and continues to vacillate between theater, film and television. Here, she embraces Alicia’s actorly narcissism but digs under the surface, delivering simple but profound nuggets, like when she tells Logan, “Maybe you’re too smart to be content.”
Playwrights Horizons’ current season is neither content nor complacent. The critically acclaimed Off-Broadway company is presenting a melting pot of new and established voices, from Craig Lucas’s season opener I Was Most Alive With You featuring American Sign Language to its closer next spring, Michael R. Jackson’s new musical A Strange Loop, about a black, gay writer wrestling with his inner demons. Artistic Director Tim Sanford acknowledges that “The Thanksgiving Play is a Native American’s view of Thanksgiving with no Native Americans in it.” He also suggests that the playwright “subversively replicates that invisibility and represents the norm of white dominance. So in a way, Larissa removes herself from this world, but she also seems to have empowered herself at the same time.”
Playwrights Horizons has bolstered the production with a Native American art installation throughout the theatre’s lobby, as well as a Guest Curator Program overseen by Emily Johnson, an Alaskan native of Yup’ik descent. The combined efforts offer various perspectives, which I applaud… but what about the play itself?
There was a blessedly diverse audience the night I was in attendance. A glance around the Peter J. Sharp Theater revealed young and old, different ethnicities and cultural representations. And that melting pot was a critical part of experiencing the play. Reactions rippled and bounced. Groans, moans and laughter ricocheted depending on whom they landed. I found the high schoolers’ (or were they college students?) constant commentary behind me somewhat disruptive, but at the same time, I listened to their reactions as if they were characters in the play. Some patrons paying up to $99 per ticket might want or expect a traditional comfort level where the house lights go down and we politely sit as the action unfolds.
But as Caden proclaims in an attempt to have his voice heard in the play within the play, “History is so dynamic. I mean it’s really perfect for theater.” And not always pretty or polite or conventional. That’s the kind of theater date I want to go on.
The Thanksgiving Play
Peter J. Sharp Theater
416 West 42nd Street, NYC
Through November 25
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Read more of his work at wexlerwrites.com.