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Theatre in Review: All the Natalie Portmans (MCC Theater)

Elise Kibler, Kara Young. Photo: Daniel J. Vasquez.

There are all sorts of storms brewing in C. A. Johnson's play, and at the center of them all is Keyonna, the tart-tongued, unapologetically lesbian, sixteen-year-old heroine. Obviously brilliant -- she often skips her charter school calculus class because it is too easy -- she has her eye on film school. Besotted by movies -- the play is set in 2009, just before the ascent of peak television -- she has annexed part of the living room wall for her "dream board," a photocollage of her favorite Hollywood leading ladies. To the dismay of her family, there is no limit to her screenings of the Mandy Moore weepie A Walk to Remember; even in the toughest of times, she finds solace in the Bill Paxton-Charlize Theron remake of Mighty Joe Young.

Keyonna also has an imaginary friend in the star of the title, who shows up dressed as her characters in The Professional, Where the Heart Is, and other vehicles. Natalie makes numerous surprise entrances, popping out of the refrigerator as her character in Cold Mountain, or tiptoeing in, decked out in her Black Swan tutu, ready to play a scene like the pro she is. (Elise Kibler appears to be having a high time realizing the star's many cinematic incarnations.) Coaxing Keyonna into reenacting an encounter from Anywhere But Here, she says, "You can be Susan Sarandon. Who doesn't want to be Susan Sarandon?"

In addition to providing some welcome laughs, this is a smart device: Keyonna can hold her own in verbal smackdowns with antagonists twice her age, but her kooky attachment to Natalie grounds her in a certain innocence, keeping her from seeming unnaturally wise beyond her years. It helps that Keyonna is played by the fast-rising Kara Young, who looks not quite the character's age; the actress combines crack comic timing with a ferociously self-assertive manner, yet there's something transparent about her -- she's just a kid, if a prodigiously gifted and combative one. Such qualities are important, because Keyonna is at a crucial moment in her still-young life and she has choices to make.

And the odds are stacked against her. Keyonna's beloved father is dead and her mother, Ovetta, an alcoholic hotel maid, expresses her many resentments by ignoring her responsibilities; she fails to come home three nights in a row, at one point gambling away the rent money during an impromptu trip with some girlfriends to a nearby casino. (The play is set in Washington, DC.) Despite her flagrantly irresponsible behavior, Ovetta insists on playing the role of mother at home, which doesn't suit Keyonna at all. Keyonna isn't the only one worried about unpaid bills; her brother, Samuel, an eighteen-year-old high school dropout, tends bar and keeps the household together. When, accused of skimming from the till, he loses his job, eviction becomes a dangerous possibility.

The family's struggles are, up to this point, fairly conventionally presented, but Johnson introduces a wild card in the form of Chantel, Samuel's sort-of lover and Keyonna's schoolmate and childhood friend. Samuel is looking for commitment, but Chantel is oddly skittish, sleeping with him but putting off further intimacies. She has good reason, being deeply attracted to Keyonna, a fact she doesn't want to admit. Her off-and-on connection to the family is both important and a further source of conflict as Keyonna, Ovetta, and Samuel slide toward homelessness.

Johnson, making a full-fledged debut after a couple of showcase productions, isn't the slickest of playwrights. She has an awkward hand with exposition: Samuel's employer at the bar has a prior connection to the family, which is never adequately explained. (I think Samuel has replaced his father at the bar, but this isn't entirely clear.) Also, both Samuel and Ovetta are nonplussed by Keyonna's devotion to white film stars. )Ovetta observes that the first time she saw Steel Magnolias, Keyonna was inconsolable over the death of Julia Roberts' character -- "You was cryin' 'cause you thought a white woman was dead. It was the end of your lil' world, child" -- and she had to show her daughter The Pelican Brief just to prove that Roberts still lived. Samuel wonders about the absence of Gabrielle Union and Sanaa Lathan from the dream board.) Is this supposed to mean something? We never find out. Similarly, Ovetta's ambivalence about Keyonna's sexual orientation comes and goes, never really finding a focus.

But there's no question that Johnson is already a pro at funny, pointed dialogue. Dreaming of writing a film for her adored Winona Ryder, Keyonna says, "Screenplay gon' be so tight, all them white folks gon' forget she ever stole from that department store." During a furious encounter with her mother, Keyonna, as usual taking no prisoners, takes deadly aim and says, "And there she is. The Ovetta I know. One step away from another bottle. Two steps away from a slap. Three steps away from lettin' everybody down." Ovetta, staring Keyonna down, says, "Drinkin' ain't easy, you know. I mean liftin' the bottle, suckin' it down, that part is definitely easy. But it's when you set the bottle down. And you know what it mean. What it weigh. That part break you up every time."

Kate Whoriskey directs these and other confrontations with an acute sense of the characters' underlying tensions, aided by a first-rate cast. In addition to Young and Kible, Montego Glover -- almost unrecognizable in a purposely unflattering wig -- captures the many complexities of Ovetta, a weak, downtrodden figure who is also angry and morally blinded by her personal problems. (Among other things, she wants credit for having sex with the landlord in lieu of the rent she lost - not the most compelling argument to make to your kids.) Glover makes something especially hair-raising out of Ovetta's savage attack on Keyonna's dream board. Joshua Boone makes Samuel, for all his flaws, into an enormously likable, even valiant, figure; especially fine is his handling of a speech in which Samuel admits to chasing after Chantel with full knowledge of her attachment to Keyonna. Renika Williams does very well by Chantel, who, struggling to understand her feelings. alternates between ghosting her friends and bailing them out.

The play gets a typically accomplished MCC production, starting with Donyale Werle's set design depicting the family's shabby-solid apartment. Stacey Derosier's lighting confidently takes us in and out of Keyonna's fantasy life. The costume designer, Jennifer Moeller, especially has fun recreating Portman's gallery of signature roles. The sound design, by Sinan Refik Zafar, includes an apt catalog of pop tunes, key themes from Swan Lake, public address announcements, and a menacing series of door knocks when trouble comes calling at the end of Act One.

It's to Johnson's credit that even as she draws her battling characters into a new and uneasy peace, they still face any number of daunting challenges. All the Natalie Portmans might have been a formulaic domestic drama, but it has plenty of grit and a mind of its own. MCC was smart to pick up Johnson and her play; both are very much worth knowing about. -- David Barbour

(25 February 2020)

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