Larissa Fasthorse’s The Thanksgiving Play is a hilarious satire of well-meaning liberals, political correctness and woke philosophy. More pertinently, it deals with who gets to write history as well as the erasure of the indigenous people’s point of view. It also has much fun with educators who have to consider the fact that their students are minors, what the parents will say, and what their local school boards allow. Playwright Fasthorse is in a unique position to tell this story as she is the first Native American playwright to have a new play on Broadway since Lynn Riggs with Green Grow the Lilacs in 1931 (later turned into Oklahoma!), Russet Mantle (1938) and The Cream in the Well (1941).
This is the second New York production of the play which was first seen in New York in 2018 at Playwrights Horizons in a totally different well received staging. While the original production had a fine hard-working cast, for the Broadway rendition director Rachel Chavkin has chosen to go with more famous names, mostly from television: D’Arcy Carden, Emmy and Golden Globe nominated for the role of Janet on The Good Place and a regular on the Emmy Award winning series Barry; Chris Sullivan, best known for his Emmy-nominated performance in This Is Us; Scott Foley, a regular on Felicity and Scandal; and Broadway star Katie Finneran who twice won the Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards for Noises Off and Promises, Promises.
Finneran plays Logan, a vegan high school drama teacher who is under probation for her production of O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh (a play about derelicts in a flop house bar) with fifteen year olds to which 300 parents objected the previous year. In order to restore her reputation, she is planning a politically correct 45 minute Thanksgiving play for elementary school children and has obtained the Race and Gender Equity in History Grant, the Excellence in Education Theater Fellowship, a municipal arts grant, the Go! Girls! Scholastic Leadership Mentorship and the Native American Heritage Month Awareness Through Art Grant. While this is impressive, it also means that she must fulfill the requirements of each grant, putting an additional burden on her.
To help in this post-Black Lives Matter era, she has hired three people: her boyfriend Jaxton, an out-of-work actor who works as a street artist at the farmer’s market; Caden, an elementary school history teacher who has written 60 unproduced plays and is thrilled he may hear professionals read his lines for the first time; and Alicia, a Los Angeles-based actress hired on the basis of her head shot which shows her dressed in Native American garb. What Logan doesn’t know is that Alicia is not Native American but plays all sorts of nationalities even though she was hired to represent the Native American point of view. Ultimately, it comes down to four white people devising a culturally sensitive First Thanksgiving play for Native American Heritage Month.
Each of them comes with their own baggage. Caden has done so much research that he wants to begin the Thanksgiving tale 4,000 years ago with the first European harvest festivals. Jaxton is so subject to the whims of contemporary trends that he appropriated the pronoun “they” for one year. While Logan is over-sensitive to everyone’s needs, she still doesn’t see what was wrong with doing The Iceman Cometh with minors. The self-involved Alicia turns out to be the one with the most complex character: she is only interested in her career, but not politics, social movements or the other people. She refuses to contribute to the play development in any way but acting. While she comes across as simplistic, Logan decides that she is simplicity itself.
The satire builds as the foursome attempts to create and rehearse the first Thanksgiving dinner but ultimately they must leave out the Native American voice – since they have none available. Their final decision is hilarious but is over so suddenly that one doesn’t have to time to process the results. The play also includes video of actual Internet classroom performances for Thanksgiving, mostly teachers’ Pinterest boards, one more outrageous than the next. (In the Off Broadway production, these were reenacted by the adult cast, though here it is actually classroom footage.)
Chavkin’s direction is smooth and consistent as the play moves to its inevitable conclusion, and her casting is perfection. However, all of the acting is low-key enough that its excesses come off as believable. Finneran’s Logan tries to be all things to all people but at the same time often breaks down with too much emotion. Foley’s pretentious Jaxton is always PC but often on his own wavelength. Sullivan’s Caden is awkward and inexperienced but a quick study. Carden’s sexy Alicia makes a virtue of empty-headedness but proves to be a versatile performer when given a role to play.
The production design is totally convincing starting with Riccardo Hernandez’s realistic classroom with its many posters, technological equipment, photographs and furniture. Lux Haac’s costumes define the characters as well as make fun of them when two reappear in costumes that they have devised for a battle among the Pilgrims and the Native Americans. The lighting by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew captures the overly bright lighting of modern classrooms. Brittany Hartman has created the hair and makeup design which sets the characters apart, while David Bengali is responsible for the projection and video design which demonstrates what the teaching artists are up against in devising their Thanksgiving play.
Larissa Fasthorse’s The Thanksgiving Play gives a good tweaking to those who are so hung up on political correctness that they dare not make a decision. On the other hand, the play reminds us how difficult it is to be fair to all sides of the historical spectrum. The erasure of the Native American point of view is made clear by their very absence from the play, while the problem of educators knowing how to walk the fine line between inclusion and suitability is given a rare airing in this delightful parody. The use of in jokes, theatrical, historical and educational notwithstanding, The Thanksgiving Play is a satire that entertains while it makes some very real and needed points about political correctness when dealing with unpleasant American history.
The Thanksgiving Play (through June 11, 2023)
Second Stage Theater
The Helen Hayes Theater, 240 W. 44th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-541-4516 or visit http://www.2ST.com
Running time: one hour and 30 minutes without an intermission