‘The Thanksgiving Play’ Review: Larissa FastHorse’s Broadway Satire of Wokeness Is Outpaced by History

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Roasting nice white liberals is a time-honored theatrical pastime. Trim away the artifice of their smug posturing and they’re predictably stuffed with a medley of ignorance, hypocrisy and narcissism. The foursome assembled by the playwright Larissa FastHorse in “The Thanksgiving Play,” which opened tonight at the Helen Hayes Theater on Broadway, would seem especially primed to be skewered: Not only are they fluent in liberal-ese, but they’re also theater people.

If the semantic gymnastics of hypersensitivity seem elliptical, try adding the inertia of devising a culturally appropriate children’s play that honors America’s genocidal roots. That’s what the high school drama teacher played by Katie Finneran is tasked with here, enlisting the help of her busking yogi boyfriend (Scott Foley); a frustrated playwright turned history teacher (Chris Sullivan of “This Is Us”); and a ditzy, beautiful, squint-and-she’s-ethnically-ambiguous actress (D’Arcy Carden of “The Good Place”). Cue a Christopher Guest-style comedy of amateur commitment to an unattainable goal and an ongoing bit.

FastHorse, who is the first known Native American woman playwright on Broadway, mines comedy from the clash of her characters’ performative social consciousness with their extreme self-absorption. The subject of Thanksgiving is already especially sensitive to Finneran’s harried director, for example, because she’s a high-key vegan. But her job is on the line, with parents up in arms over a student production she staged of “The Iceman Cometh,” presumably for its too-adult themes of drunkenness and wife killing. To make up for the misstep, she’s won a cascade of inclusivity grants for her Thanksgiving play, including one to hire an Indigenous performer.

That Carden’s blissfully simple-minded pin-up turns out to be white (she has six different ethnically styled headshots) is the catalyst for their creative crisis. Now who’s going to speak authentically for Native Americans? 

FastHorse sends up the idea that anyone could claim that authority — a reflexive acknowledgement of her own position — instead turning her attention to those who have co-opted the history and representation of indigenous people in their absence. Adult diehards for high school drama are inherently funny, sure. But educators and entertainers are also the primary storytellers passing down America’s legacy. 

The laughs in director Rachel Chavkin’s production are largely thanks to the chops of its game and agile cast. Carden steals several scenes just by finding absurd ways to consume rehearsal snacks, taking a dozen bites of a single grape like a chipmunk Jessica Rabbit. And Sullivan’s face is as animated as a cartoon cat’s. But there’s a pronounced lag underlying the script’s punchlines.

“The Thanksgiving Play” was presented off Broadway by Playwrights Horizons in 2018, and the following year became one of the top 10 most produced plays in the U.S. It’s easy to see why, with its modest cast of four white characters, simple classroom set and resonant critique of Indigenous erasure — a long overlooked crime finally drawing more attention. But FastHorse first drafted the play in 2015, in what was a vastly different social and political climate. Although the text has been updated, with a couple of nods to Black Lives Matter tucked into subclauses, Second Stage’s Broadway production feels out of step.

There is an alarming rise in hand-wringing over what’s being taught in American classrooms, but not from the inferred PC police that keeps this troupe on their toes. One could almost be nostalgic for when that was the case and not the reverse: Parents, administrators and legislators are successfully calling for bans on the discussion and teaching of racism, sexuality and gender diversity from kindergarten through college. In the midst of a culture war rapidly advancing toward censorship and fascism — with schools at the frontlines — elaborately woke teachers hardly seem an urgent target for satire. Or maybe they do, but more likely to those who maintain a willful blindness to America’s original sins.

It’s a testament to the breakneck pace of the past eight years that “The Thanksgiving Play” would be better off set when it was written. The substance of its argument is no less pressing: How and by whom stories get told perpetuate systems of power and oppression. But the objects of its satire seem both too easy a mark and already expired. It’s true that vanity, complacency and self-congratulations hinder progress, but such illusions have largely gone up in smoke. The winds of backlash have shifted, the schoolhouse is on fire and the hose is needed elsewhere.

To their credit, the players do eventually reach a realization, if one that seems even more obvious today — that white creators ought to do less, leaving space for others to tell their own stories. Hopefully “The Thanksgiving Play” clears the way for future artists like FastHorse to do just that.

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