Sixteen-year-old Keyonna is Black and lesbian living in northeastern Washington, D.C., in a tiny basement apartment where she has to sleep on the living room sofa. Although she is quite bright she cuts her AP-Calculus class because it is too easy. If that isn’t baggage enough, her mother is an alcoholic who sometimes doesn’t come home for days, leaving Keyonna and her older brother Samuel without food or rent money. Their father’s sudden death of a heart attack at his place of work has unbalanced the family, but Ovetta was drinking too much long before she lost her husband. Complicating things even more, Keyonna and Sam are both attracted to the same girl who has responded to each of them at one time or another.
Keyonna has turned the wall behind the sofa into a dream board in which she posts color photos of current famous Hollywood actresses, almost all of them white except for Whoopi Goldberg, which her mother and brother have noticed. She wants to be a successful screenwriter and take the film world by storm. When things get too stressful for Keyonna, she fantasizes being visited by Hollywood actress Natalie Portman dressed for her various roles (Black Swan, Garden State, Empire Strikes Back, Where the Heart Is, Cold Mountain, etc.) and they play a game in which they recreate scenes from her movies. Has Keyonna bought into the American Dream which does not seem to be working too well for her?
MCC Theater’s New York premiere of C.A. Johnson’s new play All the Natalie Portmans is a lovely work which resembles other such modern coming of age plays from Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding to Lynn Nottage’s Crumbs from the Table of Joy as well as moments from Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie in its depiction of a dysfunctional family struggling to survive. While the play is not entirely fresh, the characters are so honestly drawn that director Kate Whoriskey’s cast not only holds our interest but makes us worry about their futures. The play does not contain many surprises as the family is obviously on a downward spiral but we hope against hope that Keyonna and Samuel will survive the battle.
As Keyonna, Kara Young, recently seen in Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven and The New Englanders, is a very believable teen coping with her many problems. Holding it together, Young’s tension as she negotiates one pitfall after the other is palpable. She softens occasionally but not enough for us to stop worrying about her character. Montego Glover, best known for such Broadway musicals as Memphis, Les Misérables, It Shoulda Been You and The Color Purple, demonstrates her versatility in a very different kind of role as the alcoholic addicted Ovetta. She shows tremendous range as we see Ovetta both drunk and sober, suffering and caring, as she fails her children and then pulls herself together.
Tall, handsome Joshua Boone (Broadway’s Network, Manhattan Theatre Club’s Actually) is a very personable Samuel, warm, caring, and compassionate, over his head as he has taken over the role of the late father and is looking out for Keyonna while he negotiates his own hangups. Renika Williams also makes 17-year-old Chantal, once Keyonna’s best friend and now Samuel’s main squeeze, an attractive character dealing with her own demons. Elise Kibler, last seen in New York in the Classic Stage Company’s Mies Julie, is a persuasive Natalie Portman, a believable impersonation. As the off-stage bellowing landlord, Raphael Peacock is a threatening presence.
Donyale Werle’s basement apartment setting is very successful, less so for the other locales which are shoehorned into the same space. The costumes by Jennifer Moeller capture the teenagers exactly. However, as the play is set in 2009 and Black Swan did not premiere until 2010, this costume for Natalie Portman is somewhat premature. Stacey Derosier’s moody lighting defines the milieu, while Sinan Refik Zafar’s sound design amusingly introduces Portman’s entrances with themes from her movies depicted.
Not only is All the Natalie Portmans a fine Off Broadway debut for playwright C.A. Johnson, but it also heralds another new voice in the American theater. Although this play does not have a great many surprises, it will be interesting to see how Johnson’s career evolves. The lack of atmosphere for the Washington, D.C., setting will most likely be corrected in the plays to come. Kate Whoriskey’s fine cast creates memorable performances of true to life characters while making us care deeply about them.
All the Natalie Portmans (through March 12, 2020)
The Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space, 511 W. 52nd Street, at 10th Avenue, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-727-7722 or visit http://www.mcctheater.org
Running time: two hours and five minutes including one intermission