Regional Reviews: St. Louis
The Thanksgiving Play
It's not that different in The Thanksgiving Play, where old and new behavioral lines make us feel like we're careening through the darkness, and desperately trying to stay in one lane or the other, in a "post-post-racial America" as one character on stage puts it. Larissa FastHorse wrote the 90-minute comedy, which debuted in 2015. But I had the feeling that the whole thing might have been better suited to Tower Grove East's Stray Dog Theatre, whose audience skews somewhat younger and hipper than The Rep's.
And yet, I spotted some neighbors from that part of the city, too, in the Steve Woolf Studio Theatre in Webster Groves. So maybe the right audience will find the play, which runs through February 8, 2020. Like the interstate, The Rep is also in flux, with a new artistic director and additional staff, and no fiery crashes to report so far. The play generally holds together, notable for the "handle like eggs" political correctness of its comical characters (but also for the remarkable lack of conflict in the story): careening through the dizzying rules of modern class comedy under the direction of Associate Artistic Director Amelia Acosta Powell. In this new production, the funny cast (playing millennial educators and actors) is laser-focused on the vital importance of being earnest.
But if, like a lot of Rep audience members, you've aged-out of the working world, you may roll your eyes at the vital importance of sensitivity training, especially in today's educational environment. And sensitivity training is the central joke of the play. Bosses who make flirtatious (or merely flattering) comments to their employees in the 21st century are rebuked in no uncertain terms through sexual harassment videos, mandated by corporate legal departments. And in The Thanksgiving Play, there are likewise a million invisible trigger warnings in dealing with a cultural hot potatohere, a holiday play about Pilgrims and Native Americans being devised for middle school students. As Logan, the show's organizer and grant applicant, Shayna Blass combines extreme social awareness with a sweet, jittery sense of accommodation throughout.
But there's also a great "hellzapoppin'" moment on stage, when Jaxton (Adam Flores, as an intriguingly masochistic street performer) and history maven Caden (Jonathan Spivey) reenact a bloody massacre involving European pioneers and Native Americans. It's a grand scene where all the rules are broken, about two-thirds of the way into the show. Elsewhere, Ms. Blass has a good, ironic "makeover" scene with glamorous West Coast actress Alicia (Ani Djirdjirian). Fascinating to watch, Mr. Spivey has a delightful ability to ride two psychological horses at once. And, clad in a peekaboo poncho, Ms. Djirdjirian reminds us that there will always be the danger of sexual temptation in the workplace. Alicia, her character, strikes the play's few notable ironic notes, putting the lie to political correctness as we learn: a) she's not as much of a "native American" as originally believed; and b) she's enjoyed plenty of preferential treatment from what we might call the "beauty privilege" in her own life.
A built-in sense of conflict-avoidance weakens the plot, though. Logan and Jaxton worry occasionally about losing a grant, but otherwise everyone's heightened social sensitivity is entirely self-enforced. At every turn, they politely realize they can't do something because it might be offensive to one group or another. In that sense, it's a farce with an invisible, dead Native American lying there at center stage. The visible characters are agonizingly sincere about the whole thing, and there are few comic payoffs.
There might be a potential for some "Big Brother" comedy hidden away, as the four characters strive toward a more perfect union. As it stands, there's hardly any plot-driven tension, as the hyper-idealistic characters pensively examine their souls, over and over, to avoid offending some abstract idea of "the other." For one easy cure, look to 1955's Silk Stockings: Ninotchka's three comrades from Moscow get a lot of comic mileage from worrying if they're idealistic enough for some unknown, unseen secret police. Here, comic paranoia is mostly lacking, and the Potemkin village of modern propriety looks doubly thin as a result.
The Thanksgiving Play runs through February 8, 2020, at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, 110 Edgar Rd., on the campus of Webster University, St. Louis MO. For more information visit www.repstl.org
Cast (in speaking order):
* Denotes Member, Actors Equity Association