Being politically correct is a laudatory goal, but it’s just super-hard to do it well. That point is made continually in the brilliant new play by Larissa Fasthorse that debuted this past weekend at Capital Stage. “The Thanksgiving Play” is a comical tour-de-force that is wonderfully delivered in a first-rate production directed by Michael Stevenson, Cap Stage’s producing artistic director.
The play is a farce, built off of the idea that political correctness is an ongoing and ever-challenging responsibility that makes those committed to it something akin to religious zealots. For three of the four characters in the play, this commitment creates a multitude of complications that lead to some hilarious moments.
Logan is an elementary school teacher who is responsible for the children’s theatrical productions. She has received a grant to produce a play featuring a Native-American actor and has spent the funding by hiring a “real actor” from Hollywood. But Logan is under a lot of pressure as 300 parents have signed a petition to have her fired. She will be directing the as yet unscripted play, which will also star her paramour, Jaxton, who is also into yoga and acting (he is a “street performer” at the farmer’s market).
Caden is a would-be playwright, who is a history teacher at a neighboring elementary school. He’s excited to be invited to provide his massive script that includes 4,000 years of history about the Thanksgiving holiday. And Alicia is the Hollywood actor who is presumed to be of Native-American descent since she has portrayed Native-Americans in the past and answered the casting call that Logan posted.
Together these four meet to work out the plot for their Thanksgiving play. Initially, Logan and Jaxton must put their personal relationship aside so as to be politically correct in the gender-neutral roles as director and actor in the play. Their “disengagement” ritual is the first hilarious bit of beautifully choreographed action that exemplifies this couple’s commitment to gender neutrality and workplace integrity, which are just two PC issues that Ms. Fasthorse includes in her multi-layered script. In fact, part of the genius of her play is the many ways in which she both honors and lampoons the efforts of those who want to respect everyone and offend no one while maintaining personal identity and moral integrity. Suffice it to say, as Ms. Fasthorse’s play makes clear, these multiple goals are not easily squared.
But the message, if such it is, is anything but heavy-handed in its delivery. This play is, first and foremost, highly entertaining, with clever and downright funny dialogue, brilliantly conceived physical humor (for which much credit must go to Mr. Stevenson, as the actual script includes little blocking/choreographic detail), and over-the-top stereotypical characters who are so self-absorbed as to be clueless at the same time that they are seeking to be aware of and sensitive to everything and everyone.
And the cast is great! Jennifer Le Blanc, as Logan, immediately conveys the mixed emotions she feels as the recipient of the grant and the focus of the petition against her continued employment. She wants and needs this play to succeed, but it has to succeed as a statement of her beliefs, which are, of course, politically correct. Logan is an emotional wreck waiting to happen, and Ms. Le Blanc gives a wonderful performance that conveys how high-strung her character is without playing the role for laughs. As Ms. Le Blanc’s performance makes clear, Logan is dead serious about her job. The comedy around her character develops out of that seriousness.
Cassidy Brown plays Jaxton, the yoga-addicted “street performer” who may be more committed to political correctness than even his soul-mate/paramour. Mr. Brown does some impressive yoga during the play but never lets the physical performance overwhelm the dialogue, thereby avoiding the temptation to let the physical humor define his character. Instead, he is believable as a would-be actor who may not have much going on in his life, save for his relationship with Logan and his commitment to yoga and political correctness.
Gabby Battista, as Alicia (the Hollywood actress), and Jouni Kirjola, as Caden (the history teacher with dreams of playwright fame) round out the cast, and they are both terrific. Ms. Battista’s character really serves as the “common man” in Ms. Fasthorse’s script. Alicia is an actress (that’s how she describes herself) with no sense of political correctness beyond what a script might dictate. She reacts to the intensity of the other three by either zoning out (in her case, looking at the ceiling) or offering common sense perspectives that leave the others non-plussed. She has one scene where she shows a particular acting skill she possesses that is completely convincing. It was a mini-highlight of the production.
Mr. Kirjola’s performance may be my personal favorite in this production. His Caden is a classic egghead/nerd who quickly becomes transfixed by the sexy Alicia. Caden is in awe of her and of the fact that his script (or at least some of it) might actually be produced with “real actors” playing the roles. Mr. Kirjola’s facial expressions when he is either ogling Alicia or elating over the reading of parts of his script are priceless bits of acting that are too-easily overlooked. He is to the comedy in Ms. Fasthorse’s script what Stan Laurel is to the comedy in the Laurel and Hardy shorts of the first half of the last century. And he is that good in doing what he does to make his character believable. He and Ms. Battista have one physical moment that is another comical highlight in the play (again, credit to Mr. Stevenson for envisioning it).
I loved this play. It encapsulates everything that is wrong about political correctness and identity politics while acknowledging the need to respect differences and honor cultural traditions. As a message play, it is so multi-layered that it probably needs to be seen several times just to get everything the playwright is offering. But it is, above all else, a farcical comedy of the highest order. And, once again, this marvelous theatrical company has delivered a gem of a production.
Performances of “The Thanksgiving Play” continue at Capital Stage through July 22. Tickets and information are available at the theater box office (2215 J Street), by phone (916-995-5464) or online (capstage.org).