‘Manahatta’ Off Broadway Review: How the 2008 Wall Street Collapse Was Centuries in the Making

Mary Kathryn Nagle puts capitalism on the chopping block with a new play about the Lenape Nation

Manahatta Off Broadway
"Manahatta" at The Public Theater (Credit: Joan Marcus)

“Manahatta” is an event.

Mary Kathryn Nagle’s play about the overthrow and the genocide of the Lenape Nation on the island of Manhattan returns to that historic locale, as well as the Public Theater where it was originally commissioned and workshopped in 2014. Professional regional productions of the play have followed, but “Manahatta” finally comes home in more ways than one. On Tuesday at the Public, Nagle’s play premieres in its titular locale.

It is the story of the American Holocaust, and as stories go, “Manahatta” possesses all the horrific and devastating narrative power of Hitler’s Holocaust. The difference is that the extermination of six million Jews has been the subjects of dozens of plays, from “The Diary of Anne Frank” to “Leopoldstadt.” American guilt has been much harder for Americans to write about, and until now, there hasn’t been much written on the subject in the theater beyond the ubiquitous Off Broadway apology that “this theater is built on the land of the Lenape Nation.”

Nagle could have limited her play to the “purchase” of the lower tip of the island of Manahatta. She dramatizes that $24 transaction by the Dutch from the Lenape in the 17th Century with powerful precision to show the clash of two cultures: the Lenape have no concept of ownership, which is essential to the European identity. When the Dutch merchant Peter Minuit (Jeffrey King) asks members (Enrico Nassi and Elizabeth Frances) of the Lenape Nation if the land they are “selling” belongs to them, they answer that it is their home.

That same monetary disconnect is reflected later in Nagle’s play when Bobbie (Sheila Tousey), a member of the Lenape now living in Oklahoma, needs to take out a loan on her house. The bank needs proof of purchase, and Bobbie can only answer that the house has been in the family for generations — and it is her home.

“Manahatta” flips back and forth between the 17th Century and 2008, the year Wall Street famously went belly up. As only a playwright could contrive it, Bobbie has a daughter, and because her name is Jane Snake (Elizabeth Frances), she is a major player at the soon-to-be-defunct Lehman Brothers.

It is difficult to tell where Bobbie ends in the script and Tousey fills in the role. Hers is a brilliant performance that conveys seismic shifts in emotions with the barest adjustment in voice and gesture.

Nagle hasn’t given Elizabeth Frances as effective material with which to build a performance. After a disastrous and insulting job interview, Jane Snake is hired against all odds (which don’t quite make sense). When she puts herself on the intellectual and moral level of her Wall Street cohorts (Joe Tapper and Jeffrey King) to do business with them, Nagle suddenly plunges her play into the land of “Succession” with all its overused but colorful stereotypes.

Granted, the HBO series had its debut in 2018, and Nagle has been working on her play since 2014. But even “Succession” with all its jazzy testosterone-laced penis-fixated shoptalk borrows from Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street” and Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” as well as Lucy Prebble’s “Enron. Before all of them, there was Tom Wolfe’s “The Bonfire of the Vanities.” Greed isn’t so much good anymore as it is a narrative cliché.

Bobbie’s refusal to take her daughter Jane’s money to pay off her loan because it is “blood money” is supposed to be seen as a heroic gesture. It’s also an empty gesture. Nagle has chosen to tell a big, important story but gives herself only 110 minutes. That’s standard length these days in the theater. But “Manahatta” is not standard fare, and Jane Snake’s dilemma of how to live an authentic life in a capitalist world deserves more than Mom telling her she’s a louse and a sellout.

By the way, when the now-homeless Bobbie goes out into the world, what happens to her? Does she rely on some government program (Medicare? Social Security?) funded by the same “blood money” in taxes from a country that displaced and murdered her people? No, 110 minutes is not enough.

Laurie Woolery directs, and brings a cool efficiency to the many jumps back and forth in time. Every actor is double-cast, and subtle changes in costume (by Lux Haac) signal in which century each character is living. More than halfway through “Manahatta,” Woolery and Haac stage a coup de theatre, mixing up the costumes so that old Dutch attire sometimes shows up in a Wall Street boardroom about to crash.

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