Set during a meeting of the “American Conference for Letters and Culture” (ACLC)–at a hotel in a nameless city, and over the course of several days–Relevance is primarily about the rising rivalry between an established writer, Theresa Hanneck (the always credible and magnificent Jayne Houdyshell), and a young newcomer, Msemaji Ukweli (a fierce and convincing Pascale Armand).
While Theresa is about to receive the ACLC’s prestigious Alcott (or lifetime achievement award), Msemaji (pronounced “zemagee”) wins the Angelou Grant, which Theresa herself won much earlier in her career. To try and simplify a rather complicated story, Relevence is sort of like a highly literary version of All About Eve (an already literate film, by Joseph Mankiewicz), in which an established star loses her victorious place to an upstart.
But Reference is also about issues of gender, race, age, celebrity, politics, economics, and the inescapable impact of the Internet–and more specifically, social media–on the ways business is done today. That may sound like a lot to digest, or maybe even too ambitious by half–but what’s amazing about Relevance is how well it manages to fit all of that into a four-character play that speeds by in only 100 minutes.
The other characters are Kelly (Molly Camp), a vice committee chair of the ACLC who moderates the testy, opening debate between Theresa and Msemaji–with live, on-line responses (“hashtag LitLadies”)–and David (the reliable Richard Masur), Theresa’s agent with whom she had a long-term affair years ago, even though they were both married. Though somewhat less of a presence, David’s character contains a couple of the story’s biggest surprises.
While claiming that it’s “dangerous… to use otherness as a sort of righteous victimhood,” the contentious Msemaji also says that it’s “hard to be a woman of color.” As her battle with Theresa escalates, Theresa reveals that Msemaji changed her name to hide certain details of her past, and thereby exploit it. (“It’s hard to Google someone who changed her name,” explains Theresa.)
During the opening debate or rapid-fire discussion, which sets the play in motion, Msemaji says, “You define yourself in opposition, which gives those in power what they need to oppress you,” to which Theresa responds “I’m not sure what one is supposed to do if telling the truth is suddenly a reinforcement of one’s own oppression.” And as Theresa subsequently tells David of Msemaji, “What better way to position herself than by turning my lifetime achievement award into a retirement party?”
But the play is, if anything, stacked against Theresa, as both Kelly and David seem increasingly to take Msemaji’s side. Early on, David tells Theresa that Msemaji “got the better of you.” “She didn’t ‘get the better of me,’” responds Theresa, “she baited me into a fight to make her half-baked thesis go viral.” And go viral it does, just as, in a final confrontation with Msemaji, Theresa attempts to exploit the new technology for her own purposes.
Relevance speeds along–or rather, explodes–with one witty and humorous line after the other. (Consider, Theresa telling David, “Attitudes like yours is why actors who play people with Downs Syndrome get Academy Awards.”) While Kelly describes Msemaji as “strident” and Theresa says she’s “coarse,” she proves far more the former in Armand’s performance, who also gives her character a certain elegance–especially in the suitable costumes designed by Jacob A. Climer, including a bright, canary-yellow pants suit.
But as fine as Camp and Masur also are, it’s Houdyshell who takes away the highest honors of the night, even while demonstrating that she can play any type–from the lower middle-class mother in The Humans or the housekeeper in A Doll’s House: Part II, to the highfalutin intellectual Theresa here.
And then there’s the versatile set design by Clint Ramos with a revolving wall taking us from an on-stage panel discussion with its three chairs and a lectern, to Theresa’s perfectly appointed hotel room–and other places in and around the conference hotel. (Be sure to notice the moving traffic through the hotel room window.)
Relevance (through March 11, 2018)
Lucille Lortel Theater, 121 Christopher Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-727-7722 or visit http://www.mcctheater.org
Running time: 100 minutes without an intermission