There’s a fine line between satire and silliness, and “The Thanksgiving Play” crosses that line too often. Playwright Larisa Fasthorse takes shots at well-meaning, naive white people trying to be ‘woke.' When her aim is true, she makes her point, holding them up to ridicule and giving the audience at The Hayes Theater much to laugh at. As the title of the play indicates, the main target is the Thanksgiving holiday which has been sanitized and ‘white-washed.’ However, often in the 90 minute play, the script loses focus and ventures into other subjects, such as the relationship between men and women and attitude towards minorities.
Thanksgiving traditions are staples in elementary school, but the world has changed and some of those celebrations aren’t at all historically accurate. So shouldn't the festivities reflect those changes as well? ‘Culturally-sensitive’ white people don’t know exactly what to do, so they go to great extremes to do it correctly, often being absurd.
Logan (the wonderfully funny, expressive Katie Finneran ) gets a grant to put on a 45 minute play about Thanksgiving for elementary students and has hired a professional actress. She hires Alicia (D’arcy Carden) through a Zoom interview to provide a true Native American perspective for authenticity and background to the production. Early on, we realize that the actress isn’t Native American. So how can Logan put on a play about Native Americans without any Native Americans?
This is where the storyline becomes fatuous. The fourth actor of this mini-troupe is Caden (Chris Sullivan,) an elementary teacher and would-be playwright. He comes prepared with actual stories of the first Thanksgivings, vivid descriptions of the massacres of the Native Americans by the settlers. The truth is actually so frightening that they reject the tales.
With no script, Logan envisions a collaboration. She includes her boyfriend Jaxton (Scott Foley,) a street performer, in the cast. Jaxton bemoans the idea that as a straight white man, he’s at a disadvantage. Logan is a vegan who retches each time the word turkey is mentioned, which is often since the subject is Thanksgiving.
As Alicia, Carden (The Good Place) is attractive and confident. She begins to tutor Logan in the ways of simplicity, how to stare at nothing. Then two women discuss beauty, the importance of the hair toss and the advantage of being simple (code for dumb). The actress has perfected the art of being simple, but, unfortunately, Logan is too smart. Although the segment is funny, it detracts from the focus of the play.
There’s an argument between Logan and Jaxton when she yells at him He declares he understands because, after all, she’s reacting to years of women being under patrimony. Then the ‘yoga-dude’ turns his back and sits facing the wall. The playwright mocks them through their ‘jargon’ and the ritual they use as they ‘decouple.'
The foursome toss ideas around and their interactions become confrontational at various points. It also becomes absurd. Although some in the audience found it funny, it struck me as inane.
Since there are no Native Americans to represent themselves in the play, perhaps there should be silence instead. However, Jaxton wonders if having the Native Americans be silent skews the balance of power in the play in their favor? His rationale seems almost sound yet comes across as more moronic.
The actors don’t get the absurdity, but we do, and many of the moments in the play are comically cringe-worthy. Many in the audience may even see themselves in the foibles of the characters on stage and the theater references amused many of the critics in attendance.
Director Rachel Chavkin has proven her skills with shows such as Hadestown but this piece gets away from her. Interspersed with the scenes are actual videos of children in schools presenting Thanksgiving songs. The songs, often violent and racist, are more effective in making the point than is the action onstage. Although the audience laughed and ‘oohed’ at the cute children, Fasthorse’s point seemed better made.
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