Yes, there is a character named Natalie Portman in C.A. Johnson’s new play, “All the Natalie Portmans,” which opened Monday at Off Broadway’s MCC Theater. She even wears exotic costumes from some of that actor’s most famous movies, “Black Swan” and “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace,” among them.
Even more startling than her entrance in a black tutu, however, is the star-struck character that dreams her up. This Natalie Portman (Elise Kibler) is a figment of a young black lesbian’s feverish imagination. Kara Young plays Keyonna, and after her impressive turn in Stephen Adly Guirgis ensemble drama “Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven” last year, she takes center stage in “All the Natalie Portmans” to galvanize our attention for over two hours. Thoughts of varying temperatures explode on Young’s face without her saying a word or signaling them with a blink of the eye, and Keyonna is a troubled teenager with a lot on her mind to think about.
She takes refuge in the young Natalie Portman (the play is set in 2009) because her father is dead, her mother (the intense Montego Glover) is a chronic alcoholic, she’s being raised by her older brother (Joshua Boone), and she’s in love with his girlfriend (Renika Williams). Boone is very much Young’s equal in winning our empathy with minimum effort, and their scenes together of shared family angst are poignant to the point of painful.
Johnson never spells out why Keyonna has chosen to fixate on a white actor like Portman, and that intentional omission is one of the more intriguing aspects of “All the Natalie Portmans.” Fantasies, especially those tinged with sexual desire, don’t always make much sense. Elsewhere, Johnson lets her characters tell us way too much about themselves instead of dramatizing those stories. Keyonna and her family are so aware of their own psychological makeup and problems, and eager to articulate it, that it’s a wonder one of them isn’t writing a self-help blog.
Kate Whoriskey directs this talented cast, but hasn’t found a way to incorporate the Portman fantasies into the narrative. It’s theatrical and often funny whenever Kibler shows up in another iconic movie get-up (costumes by Jennifer Moeller), but after the initial surprise, Johnson’s writing here isn’t extravagant enough to make Keyonna’s dreams come alive on stage. Natalie Portman, whatever her outfit, tends to distract from rather than enhance this broken kitchen-sink drama.