In the right hands, satire can be a terrific educational tool. This was clearly in the mind of award-winning playwright and activist Larissa FastHorse when she chose to go broad with The Thanksgiving Play. Pained by the way the typical Thanksgiving story obliterates the voices of her people, the Sicangu Lakota uses laughter rather than lecture to take on all those insulting myths. This is the award winner’s first New York production and it’s a worthy entrance. Through her four well-intentioned if off-base characters, she blows up those oft-repeated stories of pilgrims showering America’s indigenous peoples with respect and side dishes. The results are uneven and she’s likely preaching to at large number of regular choir members, but a good time can still be had.
The economical cast of achingly progressive characters are developing a holiday performance that celebrates Native American Heritage month for a elementary school audience. The director of this play within a play is Logan, an anxiety prone vegan who has pulled together an array of small niche grants in order to fund her vision of a more honest Thanksgiving story. Her school play will co-star Disney-obsessed actress Alicia and Logan’s yoga-loving street performer boyfriend, Jaxton. Rounding out the “creative team” is Caden, a playwright-wanna be and first grade teacher. For the majority of the 90 minute runtime, these well-intentioned souls improvise and brainstorm their way towards an increasingly awkward outcome. Their endeavors are occasionally interrupted by wildly off-kilter musical numbers covering all the cringe inducing story elements they are trying to leave behind.
Under the direction of Moritz Von Stuelpnagel, the dialogue starts out at such a high pitch it doesn’t have enough room to grow. Jennifer Bareilles as Logan is a constant bundle of nerves. Greg Keller’s Jaxton’s oozes PC doctrine from every pore. Margo Seibert’s Alicia is such an airhead she’s perfected the art of looking at the ceiling. And Jeffrey Bean’s Caden is like a Jack Russel terrier, excited just to be in their company. All four quality actors do their best to add range and fair better with the piece’s physical humor. These moments includes an uncoupling ritual and reading aloud from several fantastically illustrated textbooks.
The design team mostly strikes the right comedic notes. The single set by Wilson Chin combines classic classroom elements with some of the most appropriately inappropriate theater posters. Costume designer Tilly Grimes delivers equally well with liberal casual and tacky pageant wear. Lighting created by Isabella Byrd highlights the action as it shifts from faux intense to intensely faux.
As both a comedy and a lesson plan, this production of The Thanksgiving Play would likely earn a B- for its insufficient build and variation. But it has heart and successfully serves as a reminder that the upcoming family holiday is fraught with misunderstandings that go far down and way back. Certainly if you’ve ever had a Caucasion friend who built a sweat lodge right next to his jacuzzi to honor “their heritage,” you will recognize FastHorse’s creations. And even if you haven’t, you’ll be reminded that what you’ve learned about US history is not necessarily the full story.
Performances are scheduled to run through November 25 at the Peter Jay Sharp theater at Playwrights Horizons. For tickets and information visit https://www.playwrightshorizons.org/shows/plays/thanksgiving-play/.