Ah, the role of diva worship in a young queer person’s life; the secret joy of living vicariously through an impossibly glamorous reality that could most likely never be your own. If it’s an actress being worshipped, then that’s all the more roles and realities to lust after. And if it’s Natalie Portman being worshipped – the totally understandable phenomenon playwright C.A. Johnson has featured in All the Natalie Portmans – then you’ve got a lot to choose from.
This obsession makes sense, as Keyonna (a wide- and wild-eyed Kara Young) has a lot to want to escape. A lot of her time is spent adding to the Natalie Portman vision board in her living room, alone in the house while her mother (Montego Glover) is out working or partying, or both. As a queer black teen, she feels lonely, even though her older brother Samuel (a convincingly caring Joshua Boone) does his best to help. Little does he know his somewhat-girlfriend Chantel (Renika Williams) may be giving more than just eyes at Keyonna when they’re alone. And just offstage is Epps (Raphael Peacock), the unseen landlord whose rent reminders overshadow their livelihoods.
Out of her fantasies and into the living room set pliés Portman (Elise Kibler), in full Black Swan attire, telling Keyonna she should probably start facing reality. Their push-and-pull is a charming concept and it earns its fair amount of laughs, but it’s one with increasingly limited returns. It certainly hands the design team a great handful of opportunities to reach beyond Donyale Werle’s living room set. Jennifer Moeller’s costumes shine brightest when recreating Portman’s wildly different looks in V for Vendetta, Garden State and others, and Stacey Derosier’s lighting turns the small kitchen into hyperspace when the young actress appears as her Star Wars persona.
Her appearances – like the rest of the production – are well-executed by Kate Whoriskey’s direction, but Kibler’s take on the incredibly versatile Portman gets muddled in trying to be all the Natalie Portmans at once, failing to capture either her diverse onscreen power, or her offscreen demeanor. Her performance doesn’t reach for the heights that would leave an impressionable teen (or anyone whose seen Portman’s work) starstruck, and we’re left to fill in the gaps.
The void this creates in the piece is luckily not felt too much during the production, thanks to the lively performances. Young – a standout in Atlantic Theater’s Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven earlier this season – keeps Keyonna just this side of precocious, crafting a character antsy with caged desires and an infectious spark.
Credit also goes to Johnson’s script, which expertly captures the early 2010s slang Keyonna and Samuel fling at each other. (This is a period piece, though not much is made of that, aside from throwback songs by The Ting Tings and The Temper Trap that play like punchlines from a time when iPod commercials encouraged us to live in our own fantasies.) Fresh and unfussy, Johnson’s dialogue lacks the ham-fisted author’s hand that can so easily make a story like this feel like self-serious Issue Porn.
But perhaps a bit too unfussy, as the second act struggles to match the vibrant world it sets up in the first. Ovetta, the mom, isn’t given much to do besides stumble around slurring words, though Glover brings pathos to the motherly love that lies beneath her slightly underwritten character. Much like the issue with Portman’s lack of visible star power here, Ovetta’s shortcomings don’t loom large enough to give their situation the gravity it claims.
Despite its flaws, Whoriskey has created an engaging production from Johnson’s very fine play. A few hours inside the mind of a disciple of the Church of Natalie Portman is as worthy a use of anyone’s time as any other.