The premise of Larissa FastHorse’s “The Thanksgiving Play” may be the work’s zingiest asset. Four adults on a difficult progressive mission have gathered in a classroom to devise a Thanksgiving pageant for an elementary school that will pass muster with today’s unforgiving standards.
Logan (Samantha Sloyan), a “teaching artist” who has infuriated parents for, among other reasons, making 15-year-olds portray down-and-out drunks in Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh,” is the “woke” ringleader. A vegan who feels nauseated by the mere mention of turkey, she is determined to pull off an unobjectionable Thanksgiving commemoration in which no animals will be slaughtered and no Native people will be demeaned.
Jaxton (Noah Bean), a farmers market street performer and self-described “vegan ally,” is Logan’s romantic paramour and fellow traveler in privilege checking. Grateful to be cast in her show, he pledges (after respectfully performing a decoupling ritual), “Nothing but gender-neutral actor, director respect from here on.”
Logan is most excited about the casting of Alicia (Alexandra Henrikson), a seductive actress from Los Angeles, whom she mistakenly believes is of Native American ancestry. Alicia, who deploys different headshots for ethnic roles, takes a wily pride in her lack of intelligence. (“I’ve been tested,” she says, matter of factly.) Her power comes from elsewhere. “I know how to make people stare at me,” she explains, as Jaxton hungrily gazes in her direction.
Rounding out the company is Caden (Jeff Marlow), a history teacher and frustrated playwright whose dream is to have his scrupulously vetted historical scripts performed by semi-professional actors. Smitten by Alicia’s simple-minded radiance, he gallantly offers his impressive research skills to a woman who has the intellectual curiosity of a marigold.
Sounds like a blast, no? Alas, “The Thanksgiving Play” promises more fun than it can deliver. Buried inside this 90-minute show is a winning episode of “Portlandia.” The satire has moments of sharpness, but mockery can hold our interest for only so long. The human dimension of the comedy is virtually nonexistent.
In the production that opened on Tuesday at the Geffen Playhouse’s smaller Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, the actors, under the direction of Michael John Garcés, are unflagging. But the energy of the audience noticeably dips.
The laughter goes from robust to ghostly. By the end, it’s not so much humor as the idea of humor. FastHorse keeps churning out chuckling lines about heritage month hypocrisy, soy cheese and the nutty politics of arts grants. But the characters don’t have enough granular reality to deepen the jokes. It’s not long before the classroom antics begin to grate.
These flailing PC do-gooders and thespian wannabees are walking lampoons, repositories of exaggerated attitudes, and credible only as easy targets. With the exception of Marlow, who draws out Caden’s schlepy sympathy, the actors compound the flatness of the characters.
FastHorse, a Native American playwright whose work has challenged blind spots in America’s historical narrative and cultural presumptions, isn’t setting up straw men. The disagreements and spats among the characters reveal entrenched conflicts and prejudices that continue in a sanitized form the Pilgrims’ erasure of indigenous reality.
“The Thanksgiving Play” incorporates as interludes skits that are taken from actual lesson plans and classroom ideas for Thanksgiving activities posted by teachers on Pinterest. The casual racism, exhibited in silly songs and playful reenactments, would defy credulity were it not so deeply ingrained.
But the accuracy of FastHorse’s satiric critique doesn’t absolve the work’s conspicuous playwriting weaknesses. As the farce accelerates and Sara Ryung Clement’s classroom set becomes as messy as a school cafeteria after a food fight, a numbing effect takes hold.
If “The Thanksgiving Play” could see its characters as more than the butt of punchlines, the skewering of cultural mind-sets might provoke more collective soul-searching than tired tittering.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 6
Info: (310) 208-5454, geffenplayhouse.org
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
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