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January 16, 2015
Review: A Beautiful Day in November on the Banks of the Greatest of the Great Lakes
The cast of Kate Benson's "...Great Lakes", now playing at City Center Stage II
The cast of Kate Benson's "...Great Lakes", now playing at City Center Stage II

Thanksgiving has never been more athletic than is portrayed in Kate Benson’s new play, whose full title is A Beautiful Day in November on the Banks of the Greatest of the Great Lakes, a co-production of New Georges and the Women’s Project.

The play views the time-honored American tradition of the Thanksgiving dinner as a sporting event. At the Wembly household, each preparation for the big day is treated with the high-stakes of a final playoff—Will the round table at which the feast is to take place fit into the dining room with enough room for chairs, plates, and food? Is the table big enough to sit every single guest (20, to be exact)? Will the great-grandbabies keep quiet? And most importantly, will the gravy, turkey, potatoes and yams come out of the kitchen uncharred?

Rather than setting the play in a realistic kitchen/dining room, the action unfolds in a suburban home/gymnasium hybrid. There are no props—the preparations of setting up the table, cooking the food, etc. are mimed in exaggerated, athletic gestures and postures. Typical household sounds, such as doorbells and oven alarms, are replaced with whistles and buzzers. Evans has her actors run, dash, and sprint on colorful lines along the stage floor which, as cleverly depicted by set designer Sara C. Walsh, looks somewhat like a basketball court on speed. The proceedings are commented on by two sportscasters, played by Ben Williams (as the “# in charge of action”) and Hubert Point-DuJour (“@ color commentary”).

For most of the play, we are witness to the frantic antics and preparations of the dinner. As the meal’s success becomes an increasingly less likely prospect, the “# in charge of action” wonders if there could be anything worse. “@ color commentary” remarks that there is rape, genocide, and other things that are worse than a Thanksgiving dinner gone wrong. Indeed, there is something very sinister that is about to happen to the pre-occupied Wembly’s, but the audience doesn’t know until the chilling final minutes, in which the play takes an unexpected, gruesome turn, which results in a coda that doesn’t quite land.

Walsh’s actors navigate the complex choreography the piece calls for with stupendous dexterity—it’s a marvel they manage not to bump into one another. Jessica Almasy and Christian Felix juggle their multiple roles with ease and grace. Mia Katigbak is hilariously disapproving as the blind grand-matriarch SnapDragon. Kristine Haruna Lee, as the recently divorced black-sheep Gumbo, brings the right amounts of awkwardness and sympathy to a character who, from her first entrance, isn’t participating in the sportsmanship.

The challenge of Benson’s script is to keep up the rapid-fire pace of a sports game without sacrificing the sense of character or relationships. It’s a very tricky balance to pull off, and while Evans’ production bravely rises to this challenge, there is certainly room to increase the frantic nature of the piece. Even so, Benson’s intent is clear: To satirize how we put so much effort into our holidays that we oftentimes forget the sinister undercurrents of our society.

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Written by: Dave Osmundsen
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