'Relevance': Theater Review

Courtesy of Joan Marcus
Pascale Armand and Richard Masur in 'Relevance'
Heavy lifting with little payoff.
3/11/2018

Jayne Houdyshell, a Tony Award winner for 'The Humans,' and Pascale Armand, Tony-nominated for 'Eclipsed,' star in JC Lee's new drama about the intellectual battle between two feminist authors.

Feminism vs. post-feminism. Are we living in a society defined by racial identity or post-racialism? Is social media a force for open dialogue or an outlet for the bigoted and uninformed? These are among the many issues brought up in JC Lee's drama being given its world premiere by MCC Theater. It's admirable to see a playwright addressing such weighty topics, but Relevance proves intellectually overstuffed and dramatically undercooked. Too often echoing the sort of academic symposiums that feature heavily in its plot, the play threatens to sink under its own weight. Only the talents of its formidable lead performers, Jayne Houdyshell (The Humans and A Doll's House, Part 2) and Pascale Armand (Eclipsed), keep it afloat.

The opening scene depicts an onstage conversation conducted at the "American Conference for Letters and Culture," between veteran feminist writer Theresa Hanneck (Houdyshell) and Msemaji Ukweli (Armand), an up-and-coming African-American author of a best-selling book featuring provocative positions on gender and race. Kelly (Molly Camp), the thirtysomething moderator, invites viewers of the live-streamed event to participate via the hashtag #LitLadies. 

The debate quickly proves heated due to Theresa's monopolizing of the conversation and her umbrage at Msemaji's accusation that she, and others like her, are guilty of operating from a position of "righteous victimhood." The exchange quickly goes viral, with the old-school Theresa ill-equipped to handle the instant negative judgments levied against her on social media. Her beleaguered longtime agent David (Richard Masur) tries to warn her that the Twitter universe is on her opponent's side.

"Twitter is hardly Vidal versus Buckley," Theresa responds dismissively. "It's people climbing on top of one another to see what the cool kids are talking about."

But Theresa is concerned enough about preserving her place at the top of the intellectual mountain to begin researching her rival's background. She discovers that Msemaji, born Tiffany Hall, adopted her new name, which means "truth seeker" in Swahili, as an undergraduate. And that Instead of growing up in poverty, she had a privileged upbringing.

The more Theresa digs, the more obsessed she becomes. "She might as well be Rush Limbaugh in blackface," she tells David. "She's a fake." He tries to tell her that her efforts will come to naught. "So because she's black, I'm supposed to…?" Theresa asks in frustration. "Yes, Theresa," he responds. "Because she's black, you can't win." 

Later on, while accepting a prestigious award, Theresa takes the opportunity to attempt to call Msemaji out for her apparent falsehoods, using the very social media she's been decrying. But when she makes a highly politically incorrect declaration, the backlash is swift and severe.

Lee, whose television credits include How to Get Away With Murder and Looking, clearly knows his way around the rarified territory. But despite its authentic-sounding (if at times impenetrable) intellectual arguments, Relevance emerges as a confusing muddle when it comes to what drives these two combatants. Their motivations and psychology never become clear, and ultimately they become little more than theatrical mouthpieces.

Although the play runs only 90 minutes, it feels attenuated, endlessly repeating its themes so as to drum them into our heads. The storyline's more personal elements — such as Theresa and David having once had a long-term affair, and his betrayal of her by wooing Msemaji as a client — add little to the overall impact. However, David, especially as entertainingly played by the veteran Masur (Transparent), at least provides some much-needed comic relief.

Houdyshell and Armand deliver compelling turns as the academic adversaries; the former's performance in a dialogue-heavy role is all the more impressive considering the wordy play's opening was delayed for last-minute rewrites. And director Liesl Tommy (Eclipsed) gives the work a smoothly polished staging, its impact abetted by Clint Ramos' versatile sets and Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew's impressive projections conveying the social-media whirligig so central to the plot. But despite the strenuous efforts of everyone involved, Relevance never succeeds in enlightening us as to why it matters.

Venue: Lucille Lortel Theatre, New York
Cast: Pascale Armand, Molly Camp, Jayne Houdyshell, Richard Masur
Playwright: JC Lee
Director: Liesl Tommy
Set designer: Clint Ramos
Costume designer: Jacob A. Climer
Lighting designer: Jiyoun Chang
Sound designer: Broken Chord
Projection designer: Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew
Presented by MCC Theater, by special arrangement with The Lucille Lortel Theater Foundation