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Theatre in Review: The Thanksgiving Play (Second Stage/The Hayes Theater)

Chris Sullivan, D'Arcy Carden. Photo: Joan Marcus

Satire often has a short shelf life, especially when the subject is topical. In 2018, The Thanksgiving Play was a merry and thoroughly up-to-the-minute spoof of wokeness as it was beginning to enter the cultural conversation. Seen in 2023, it seems...so five years ago. A brief, farcical satire -- comfortably ensconced at Playwrights Horizons, home to similar works by Christopher Durang and Albert Innaurato -- it was the first word on the subject; now that political correctness has been argued to death on every cable news channel and social media outlet, the play's humor has fizzled more than a little. Author Larissa Fasthorse's biography states that it is one of the most produced plays in America. I'm sure that's true, but I expect that the clock is running out on it. This is not an especially well-timed Broadway transfer.

Logan, the focus of this fish-in-a-barrel expedition, is a high school drama teacher in hot water for her latest production. "The Iceman Cometh was made so much more relevant with fifteen-year-olds," a colleague says. "Three hundred parents disagree," Logan replies, alluding to the petition circulating against her. To redeem herself, she has raised grant money to stage a "fully devised educational play" for grade schoolers about the first Thanksgiving. Recruited for this high-minded endeavor are Logan's boyfriend Jaxton, an "actor slash yoga dude," who pursues his art on street corners; Caden, a local history teacher with a terrifyingly large backlog of unproduced plays; and Alicia, an airheaded professional actress from LA whose credits, include "third understudy for Jasmine" at Disneyland's Aladdin show.

It is Alicia who generates the first crisis. Thanks to one of her "ethnic" headshots -- "My look is super-flexible," she boasts -- Logan has hired her under the misimpression that she is a Native American. When the truth comes out, so does the deflating realization that "four white people can't do a play about Thanksgiving that doesn't piss off the funders or the parents or the universe." Wrestling with several impossible workarounds, including having Alicia dream that she is Indigenous, or treating Native Americans as an "absence" -- cutting their lines and replacing them with silence -- everyone begins to realize that there is no way to wrest an uplifting moral from a historically accurate depiction of this event.

Fasthorse churns out gag lines with machine-like efficiency, many of which are funny in a sketch comedy way. For twenty minutes or so, they're priceless; at an hour and a half, the repetition and blatant absurdity cause the fun to pall noticeably. In any case, the play may have also missed its moment: At a time when right-wing politicians are running amok with don't-say-gay laws and trans bans, a spoof of left-wing overreach seems oddly inapposite. And, as the action slides into mayhem, with the set spattered in stage blood, humor that once stung like a bee starts to feel simultaneously assaultive and lacking in impact.

If The Thanksgiving Play amused in a smallish studio theatre setting, it loses its light touch in even a small Broadway house. Perhaps to compensate for the bigger space, the new director, Rachel Chavkin has pushed the actors definitively in the direction of mugging. As Logan, Katie Finneran, who knows a thing or two about landing a laugh, amuses when kvelling over her list of funders, which includes a "Race and Gender Equity in History Grant, the Excellence in Educational Theater Fellowship, a municipal arts grant, the Go! Girls! Scholastic Leadership Mentorship," and "Native American Heritage Month Awareness Through Art Grant." But she pushes a little too insistently, especially in her extreme reactions to each new crisis. Scott Foley doesn't always find the humor in Jaxton's many performative gestures, for example declaring himself a "vegan ally" or gifting Logan with a water bottle made "with recycled glass from broken windows in housing projects." Slightly better is Chris Sullivan as Caden, a positive font of inconvenient factoids. D'Arcy Carden's confidently underplayed Alicia is the production's most reliable source of hilarity, whether daintily savoring the whipped cream on her Frappuccino, demonstrating the beauty of doing nothing, and torpedoing a discussion of nontraditional casting by noting that, at Disneyland, "that whole Pocahontas cast was Filipino."

Riccardo Hernández's classroom set, decorated with theatre posters, has a photorealistic quality, although I don't know why the ceiling raises late in the action; lighting designer Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew captures the fluorescent look so typical of educational institutions. Lux Haac's costume design is particularly observant when noting the differences between Logan and Alicia's personal styles; Haac also captures Jaxton's carefully arranged casual look. Mikaal Sulaiman's sound design is solid, especially in connection with David Bengali's hilarious video interludes, featuring a company of kids performing, in their best deadpan fashion, a variety of horrifying Thanksgiving-themed songs and sketches gleaned by Fasthorse from the Internet.

Having made its point in the first ten minutes, The Thanksgiving Play has nowhere to go, so it keeps escalating, aiming for increasingly grotesque laughs that deliver diminishing returns. As a sadder-but-wiser Jaxton notes, "We need to be less. Do less. That's the lesson. By doing nothing, we become part of the solution." Words that the cast and creatives might have done well to embrace. --David Barbour

(25 April 2023)

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