In our problematic age, can we possibly balance the realities of history with society’s good intentions? Playwright Larissa FastHorse explores that question in The Thanksgiving Play, a frequently funny, occasionally obvious satire of performative wokeness, on stage at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Playwrights Horizons. FastHorse, a member of the Sicangu Lakota tribe, deliberately excludes indigenous voices from the work, in order to focus squarely on the well-intentioned but often cringe-inducing condescension of liberal white artists and intellectuals.
It may be a stretch to call Logan (Jennifer Bareilles), a high-minded middle school drama teacher, an artist or an intellectual. Those monikers certainly strain credulity when applied to Jaxton (Greg Keller), her life partner and collaborator, whose professional career mostly consists of busking at the local farmer’s market. But they undoubtedly approach their own work with painful seriousness – as evidenced by Wilson Chin’s clever classroom set, dotted with school posters from shows no prepubescent tweens should approach (How I Learned to Drive and Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune were among my personal favorites).
Logan secures a couple spectacularly named grants (like the Go! Girls! Scholarship Leadership Mentorship) to devise a holiday show that wrestles with the genocidal, colonialist underpinnings of the first Thanksgiving feast. She hopes a successful production will eclipse the calamity of her most recent mainstage effort, a disastrous attempt at The Iceman Cometh that landed her on institutional probation. She enlists Caden (Jeffrey Bean), a theater-besotted elementary school teacher, and Alicia (Margo Seibert), a Native American actress from Los Angeles, to aid in crafting the piece that will “break down the myths and stereotypes of Thanksgiving in forty-five minutes.”
The material offers ripe ground for skewering both gentle and severe, and FastHorse, who makes her New York debut here, digs into liberal mores and theatrical earnestness with aplomb. Alicia, it turns out, isn’t actually indigenous, a triviality she blithely dismisses by claiming she “specializes in oppressed characters.” (She cycles through a half-dozen headshots based on the racial makeup of the characters she wants to play). Caden’s insistence on precise historical accuracy, dispensed through a series of factoids he learned in graduate school, endlessly annoys Logan and Jaxton, who claim to be striving for veracity themselves. At the performance I attended, a joke about dramaturgy had the theater-savvy audience doubled over in laughter.
On the other side of the spectrum, repeated jokes about veganism, yoga culture, and white guilt as an impetus for do-gooder activism start to seem like low-hanging fruit after a while. FastHorse has an original, tartly humorous voice, which she uses well to highlight the erasure of Native perspectives from both the national history and creative conversations about representation in the arts. Excessive reliance on sophomoric or easy-target humor only serves to cheapen the salient points made elsewhere in the play.
In much the same way, Logan and Jaxton comes across as less dimensional characters than Alicia and Caden. In crafting their personas, FastHorse reaches into a grab bag of crunchy granola stereotypes, which often make them seem more like plot necessities than people. Bareilles has moments that suggest a glimmer of self-awareness beneath Logan’s relentlessly progressive exterior, but Keller’s performance relies too heavily on surfer-boy vocal fry and dumb sounding hippie-dippy catchphrases. Under Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s virtuosic but sometimes too-broad direction, some key moments — such as Logan and Jaxton physically miming the act of “decoupling” to preserve their respective jobs — are cartoonish.
Bean and especially Seibert fare better, largely because the material for Caden and Alicia contains more nuance and the humor is not as forced. Both characters take themselves less seriously, and in doing so, allow for the possibility of unguarded revelation. A moment in which Alicia obtains a tenuous grasp of the concept of privilege only to punt it, communicates volumes; Seibert plays the moment for comedy, but a chilling undercurrent persists. FastHorse shows that she trusts her audience and her material in the writing for these characters, something that’s sometimes debatable with Logan and Jaxton.
The Thanksgiving Play reaches a compelling conclusion, although doing so involves nothing short of a deus ex machina (someone less charitable might call it “desperation ex machina”). Von Stuelpnagel’s staging, in that moment and throughout the play, recalls his high-energy approach to past works like Hand to God and Teenage Dick, though the overall production could have benefited from the dashes of subtlety he brought to those plays. Here, it accentuates the material’s overall bluntness.
Bluntness surely has a place in satire, and FastHorse has an undeniably exciting, individual voice that deserves to be heard. She gives the audience a good time, but it often tends to feel like little more than that. The Thanksgiving Play aims to hold a mirror to the faces of “enlightened white allies” and suggest we still have so much to learn – and that we still silence and exclude so many voices from the conversation. But if we’re too busy laughing at the obvious jokes, will we still have time to recognize the serious flaws embedded in our culture?