Theatre Review by Howard Miller - April 20, 2023
The Thanksgiving Play by Larissa FastHorse. Directed by Rachel Chavkin. Scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez. Costume design by Lux Haac. Lighting design by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew. Sound design by Mikaal Sulaiman. Projection and video design by David Bengali. Hair and makeup design by Brittany Hartman. Vocal coach Kaye Wilson. Fight Consultant Marcus Watson.
FastHorse, of the Sicangu Lakota Nation, aims her comic barbs at a subsection of the statue topplers, namely well-meaning white liberals who trip all over themselves with a display of heightened awareness about those they view as historically marginalized. Thus it is with the four characters who have gathered in a classroom for the purpose of putting together a Thanksgiving holiday production.
You'd think that would not be such a huge challenge. But Logan (Katie Finneran), the drama teacher charged with heading up the task, is more than a little nervous about planning a program that will be both respectful of Native Americans and acceptable to the school board and the politically-active parents, including the 300 who signed a petition demanding that she be fired after they shut down her high school production of The Iceman Cometh. She's also got to answer to the underwriters of several grants she has received to cover the costs, including the all-important Native American Heritage Month Awareness Through Art Grant. So every decision is fraught.
Joining the two educators is Logan's laid-back but self-assured boyfriend Jaxton (Scott Foley), who views himself as a professional actor but who, as Logan points out, does his acting "on a street corner and gets paid with tips in a coffee can." Rounding out the quartet is Alicia, played by D'Arcy Carden, giving a delightfully comic performance that reminded me of Jennifer Aniston. Alicia is the "Native American" actress Logan has hired using some of the grant money in order to lend a voice of authenticity to their work. Turns out, however, that Alicia also is white, though, as she proudly points out, she has made a career out of portraying various ethnic types. "I was third understudy for Jasmine" at Disneyland, she happily explains. "We're actors. We act. That's the job. Is Lumière a real candlestick?"
Once the premise of the play is established, all that remains is for the characters to dig themselves into ever-deepening holes. Which they do with great panache under the direction of the ever-creative Rachel Chavkin. The director probably is best known for helming Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812 and Hadestown on Broadway, but she also brings with her a great deal of Off-Broadway experience that gives the production an offbeat inventive style that tosses what really is a hot-button issue into the hands of four characters who have no idea what to do with it.
In addition to the splendid cast, the play offers a fillip in the form of a series of videos of children performing Thanksgiving numbers, ranging from the cute to the cringe-worthy. The latter includes a segment in which a group of "Pilgrims" sings, "Two little Indians foolin' with a gun. One shot t'other, and then there was one."
The Thanksgiving Play cleverly illuminates the foolishness of people who sincerely believe they are trying to be respectful. It also makes us think of the theatre community as a whole and of the work that still needs to be done in order to shape a truly inclusive and equitable environment for creative teams, actors, and everyone involved at all levels in the world of show business. It's nice, for instance, to be able to say that Larissa FastHorse is the first known woman Native American playwright to have a play produced on Broadway. Indeed, we have seen a lot of "firsts" in the past couple of years. But "firsts" need to be followed by seconds and thirds and more, until the word "first" can be retired for good. And that includes dealing with the first Thanksgiving.