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Theatre in Review: Relevance (MCC Theater/Lucille Lortel Theatre)

Pascale Armand. Photo: Joan Marcus

Relevance holds out the tantalizing promise of a no-holds-barred debate between feminists of two generations, but it would have been a far better work if the battle lines had been more fairly drawn. It begins amusingly at an academic conference where the panelists are Theresa Hanneck, for decades a literary icon and role model for women writers, and Msemaji Ukweli, a rising star whose latest book is getting the sort of attention that once came Theresa's way. Theresa, who is white and whose natural home is in the spotlight, can't stop pontificating, in this case about the hatred faced by women and minorities. "I know people think sometimes I'm too blunt or too reductive, but nuance has a way of obscuring the truth," she says, words that will come to haunt her.

Meanwhile Msemaji repeatedly tries, and fails, to get a word in edgewise. The opening scene shows the wry way the playwright, JC Lee, has with the clich├ęs of academia, as well as our current fascination with social media. While Msemaji struggles to complete a sentence amid Theresa's nonstop pronouncements, Kelly, the moderator, urges viewers -- the panel is being livestreamed -- to post their comments to the hashtag "LitLadies." Chiming in, she adds, in reverent tones, "People are agreeing with this on Twitter, Theresa. WriterBot16 says, 'This is exactly what we face every day'.'" At moments like these, one suspects Lee has spent more than his share of time at Modern Language Association get-togethers.

Tired of listening to Theresa carrying on about the effects of white privilege, and finally elbowing her way into the conversation, Msemaji -- who, Kelly notes, gushing, was ranked by Buzzfeed as "one of the top up-and-coming cultural figures to watch on social media" -- drops a little bomb of her own: "I think it's dangerous to go too far down any road that seeks to use otherness as a sort of righteous victimhood. Is it hard to be a woman of color, especially one growing up surrounded by endemic poverty? Yes. There's no doubt about that. But I'm grateful for the point of view that struggle has given me. There's a narrowness that comes from only focusing on privilege, who has it and who doesn't."

This turns out to be the shot heard round the campus and the publishing world, shocking Theresa into combat mode. Matters aren't helped when Msemaji, who is in her late twenties, adds, "Well, specifically among women of a certain age, I think there was a battle fought that conditioned some to rally around a cause, to say, 'We are this and we have to fight that and by being this, we are defined.' You define yourself in opposition, which gives those in power what they need to oppress you." By the end of the panel, Theresa feels dismissed, disrespected, and confined to a kind of intellectual retirement home -- and she's not going to take it lying down.

The rest of Relevance tracks the shifting conflict between Theresa and Msemaji, which becomes increasingly personal. Theresa leaks to the conference's organizing committee the fact that Msemaji was christened Tiffany and attended a posh private school -- information that, she feels, exposes Msemaji as a fraud. Msemaji fires back during a masterful acceptance speech that manages to praise Theresa while firmly placing her on the remainder shelf. ("Her work is a clarion call from the past, a touchstone for my generation as we move the conversation forward, unmarked by the same scars that are tokens of her survival.") Then things get really ugly, with increasingly wild accusations by Theresa and publishing intrigues engineered by Msemaji.

Much of this amuses and a great deal of it is stimulating, but Relevance suffers from a certain blurred focus. At times, it benefits from a true clash of ideas: Theresa, member of a largely white generation of feminists, is used to setting the terms of struggle for all minorities, and she's not at all pleased to find a young black woman practicing one-upmanship on her. A survivor of the culture wars of three and four decades ago, she is never not ready to rumble. At other times, Relevance feels like Clare Boothe Luce's The Women with a cast of PhDs, in which politics and literature are lost in the wake of a feminist catfight.

The problem, I think, has to do with the way the ladies are represented. Theresa is a thin-skinned blowhard, always ready to put up her dukes when anyone disagrees with her. Although pugilistic ladies of letters are hardly an unknown in American culture -- Lillian Hellman immediately comes to mind -- it's still hard to believe that Theresa, enduring what is at best a mild example of pushback, would instantly set out to destroy Msemaji. It's even harder to believe that she would do it so ham-handedly. We are told repeatedly that Theresa is ignorant of the Internet, but would she really turn to a website as unreliable as Reddit to challenge a rape narrative that is the center of Msemaji's first book? Because so much of the plot turns on the issue of Msemaji's honesty, she must remain a mystery woman for far too long. In a way, Lee's script mirrors the inequities of the opening scene: Theresa is allowed one oration after another while Msemaji spends too much time on the sidelines, seething.

Liesl Tommy's slick, fast-moving production goes a long way toward keeping Relevance entertaining, even when it is at its most unbalanced, and her cast is topflight. The role of the dominating, ruthlessly honest Theresa is a great fit for Jayne Houdyshell, who delivers the kind of literary lioness who brooks no contradiction and who, in her heart of hearts, is terrified of no longer being at the center of things; if she can't quite sand the unpleasant edges off the character, it's the playwright's fault, not hers. Pascale Armand's Msemaji is equally compelling, an intellectual street fighter whose technique is admirably subtle. She also capitalizes on Msemaji's likable qualities, sending strong signals that, in another context, she and Theresa could have ended up good friends. Richard Masur neatly pockets one scene after another as Theresa's agent and former lover, who is not nearly as loyal as he first appears. Molly Camp is a constantly amusing presence as Kelly, whose fan-girl worship of Theresa gets her dragged into the fray.

Clint Ramos' set design makes good use of a turntable to zip us along from the conference stage to Theresa's hotel room, a bar, and other locations. Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew's projections are invaluable in setting the scene at various conference events. The set and the curved upstage wall are lit with a pleasing color palette by Jiyoun Chang. Jacob A. Climer's costumes are wickedly alert to the differences among the three ladies; his aging-hippie wardrobe for Masur's character is equally astute. Broken Chord's sound design includes solid reinforcement, using mics, for the conference panels and awards events, along with such effects as passing traffic and birdsong.

Relevance is timely, never dull, and sometimes very funny, but there's better, deeper, more mordant comic drama lurking inside it, based on the truth that, sooner or later, every revolutionary has to face the fact that he or she has become the establishment. It's telling that only in the very last scene does Lee ask us to feel something for Theresa, but, by then, her worst fears have been realized: She's no longer all that interesting. -- David Barbour

(26 February 2018)

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