Some plays tell us one thing while pushing our allegiance in the other direction.
The playwright Larissa Fasthorse wrote “The Thanksgiving Play” after being told repeatedly that her plays about indigenous people could not be produced because indigenous actors were not available (or could not easily be found) to play the indigenous roles she had written. Fasthorse’s response was “The Thanksgiving Play,” which opened Thursday on Broadway at the Helen Hayes Theatre after its Off Broadway premiere in 2018.
Fasthorse’s play lampoons four white people who are attempting to put on a school play about the country’s first Thanksgiving without including any roles for indigenous people because none were available (or could easily be found) in one fictional but all too typical school district.
It’s a daunting situation for any drama department, but the teacher named Logan (Katie Finneran) in Fasthorse’s play thinks she has found a solution by hiring and importing Alicia (D’Arcy Carden), a professional actor from Los Angeles who is “Native American.” The only problem is, Alicia turns out not to be an indigenous person, much to the horror of Logan and her boyfriend, Jaxton (Scott Foley), who is himself hurt that his status as a professional actor — actually, he’s a street performer — has not qualified him for the grant money that provides unemployment for indigenous person like Alicia, who is actually not “Native American.”
Somewhere in this high school mess of political correctness is another teacher named Caden (Chris Sullivan), who fancies himself a writer and just wants to see his play about Thanksgiving produced somewhere, anywhere, even if it is a mere school pageant.
“The Thanksgiving Play” runs 90 minutes without intermission. Interspersed throughout the show are a number of filmed school pageants in which “students” perform their own well-meaning and ridiculous enactments of Thanksgiving. All together, these filmed segments run approximately 15 minutes, giving the four live actors about 75 minutes to perform, which is about an hour more than Saturday Night Live would have taken to satirize this topic of woke run amok.
Because “The Thanksgiving Play” runs about an hour longer than it should, a strange thing happens as its four characters grapple with the impossibility of Logan’s assignment: The most manipulative and openly self-centered of the characters steals the show. In her Broadway debut, Carden wins most of the laughs by doing little more than rolling her eyes, seductively throwing her hair back and applying yet another layer of lip gloss.
The use of pronouns is just one of the many liberal issues that Fasthorse skewers by having Logan embrace it so smotheringly. The Playbill for “The Thanksgiving Play” is also the only one I’ve encountered in recent seasons where none of the actors notify audiences of his, her or their preferred pronouns. To paraphrase Ron DeSantis, this is the production where woke went to die.
Among the actors, Foley is very good at preening to make fun of Jaxton’s sense of male superiority. Sullivan is very good at bumbling to make fun of Caden’s sense of inflated artistic ambitions, as well as his desire to bed Alicia.
Finneran has by far the most difficult role. She is the moral compass of a play that ridicules Logan’s sense of morality, which has been irreparably tainted and warped by white privilege. To convey that conflict, Finneran delivers a very busy performance, and the more she overacts the more Carden wins our hearts by being unapologetic in her character’s lack of duplicity. Alicia follows her gut. If she isn’t a bigot, she is definitely an opportunist, and one who is nobody’s dupe. Sensitivity is for suckers. Astonishingly, Fasthorse’s printed script describes Alicia as being “sexy and hot, but not bright” — ironically, one would only imagine a white, straight cis male writing that description.
Rachel Chavkin’s direction is far more concise in the filmed sequences than the overly long live sequences. In what is fast becoming a Broadway cliché for set designers, Riccardo Hernandez has created a classroom set that undergoes a major late-in-the-performance transformation. The scenic coup de theatre is supposed to signal some major change in the story. Unfortunately, the narrative drive runs out of “The Thanksgiving Play” long before Hernandez’s set attempts to stage an 11 o’clock rescue.