'The Thanksgiving Play': Theater Review

The Thanksgiving Play - Production Still 1 - Publicity-H 2018
Courtesy of Joan Marcus
Skewers liberal pretensions with glee.

A group of white artists attempts to create a politically sensitive holiday play for schoolchildren in Native American playwright Larissa FastHorse's world-premiere satire.

If you consider yourself truly "woke," you might want to see the new comedy being given its world premiere at Playwrights Horizons because it's written by a female, Native-American playwright. And if you're not, you'll still want to see The Thanksgiving Play, because it's very, very funny.

Larissa FastHorse's clever satire is set in a classroom where a group has gathered to "devise" a 45-minute holiday play in honor of Native American Heritage Month for an elementary school audience.

Among them are Logan (Jennifer Bareilles), a drama teacher whose previous directorial credits include a production of The Iceman Cometh featuring 15-year-olds; Jaxton (Greg Keller), her street performer boyfriend, who gifts her with a water bottle "made from broken windows in housing projects"; Caden (Jeffrey Bean), a history teacher with a passion for theater, on hand to make sure the piece is historically accurate; and Alicia (Margo Seibert, Rocky), a professional actress from Los Angeles who has been cast because of her Native American heritage. 

"I have always been drawn to your ways," Jaxton gushes to Alicia when they first meet. Unfortunately, there's been a misunderstanding, as Alicia isn't Native American at all but rather "English and French and a little Spanish." It turns out she was mistakenly hired because of her "Native American headshot."

The play hilariously dissects political correctness via such plot elements as Logan's goal to make a "culturally sensitive" play about a holiday revolving around "the slaughter of millions of animals" in spite of her veganism, and Jaxton's determination to get to the core of the "Native American gestalt."

Caden vainly attempts to set the historical record straight about the actual, little-known beginnings of the holiday, while Alicia horrifies the others with her joyous recollection of playing "frozen turkey bowling" as a child. "They call them Butterballs, but they're really not shaped like balls," she explains.

Interpersonal dynamics also enter into the picture, with both men finding themselves irresistibly drawn to the sexually alluring if not particularly bright Alicia. The insecure Logan becomes increasingly jealous, but Alicia reassures her that she could be gorgeous with just a little makeup and a valuable lesson in "hair-flipping."

Interspersed with the scenes depicting the piece's chaotic creation are several holiday-themed skits and musical numbers, including a song performed by the actors dressed as pilgrims and a turkey parodying "The Twelve Days of Christmas." There are also some very amusing theatrical in-jokes, including throwaway gags about whether the proper spelling is "theater" or "theatre" and what exactly a dramaturg does.

Not all the jokes land, and even with its brief 90-minute running time, the evening ultimately has the feel of an overextended sketch. But the play delivers plenty of uproarious moments and, under the expert direction of Moritz von Stuelpnagel (who previously demonstrated his gift for comic staging with such Broadway plays as Hand to God and the recent revival of Present Laughter), the performers' uproarious turns make their characters as endearing as they are daffy.

All that makes The Thanksgiving Play something for which to be truly thankful.

Venue: Playwright Horizons, New York
Cast: Jennifer Bareilles, Jeffrey Bean, Greg Keller, Margo Seibert
Playwright: Larissa FastHorse
Director: Moritz von Stuelpnagel
Set designer: Wilson Chin
Costume and puppet designer: Tilly Grimes
Lighting designer: Isabella Byrd
Sound designer: Mikaal Sulaiman
Presented by Playwrights Horizons