“What can we do to break down the myths and stereotypes of Thanksgiving in forty-five minutes with three people?…” – Logan (The Thanksgiving Play)

Geffen Playhouse has kicked off the holiday season with Larissa Fasthorse’s The Thanksgiving Play, directed by Michael John Garcés.  The focus of the piece is high school drama teacher Logan (Samantha Sloyan) and her ‘play within the play’ effort to temper the hot water she’s landed herself in with parents for (we deduce) her production of The Iceman Cometh.  Logan has secured a Native American Heritage Month Awareness Through Art grant, enabling her to hire what she perceives to be a Native American actress out of LA.  That’s just one of many grants she’s secured and the restrictions inherent in those agreements coupled with those that can be found in any public school setting makes this a creative challenge that hyper-PC Logan and her equally woke yoga instructor/actor/lover Jaxton (Noah Bean) are constantly checking against every potentially offensive or dismissive action one might take, intentionally or otherwise. 

Noah Bean and Samantha Sloyan in The Thanksgiving Play. Photo by Jeff Lorch.

Logan is a director under pressure and the way Sloyan physicalizes every twist and turns into conflict is simply fantastic.  She is the one with her future on the line and so she must weather the storm most significantly as she tries to ‘devise’ a play with Jaxton, elementary school history teacher Caden (Jeff Marlow) and her much anticipated mistaken casting of LA native Alicia (Alexandra Henrikson).  Caden is dedicated to sticking to the facts while Alicia simply wants to be the star of the show and Jaxton walks a fine line between letting his every creative impulse fly (including ones that have him working with Alicia up close, and very personal) while being there for Logan as she struggles against her desire to panic.   Each of the actors plays a type but each does a wonderful job of finding specific gestures and beats that mostly succeed in fleshing those types out.   There are moments in the play that take us even further, as when Caden points out that the entire Thanksgiving story could be a fictional one that was created to ‘celebrate the victory of capitalism over communism’ but woke Jaxton ignores the implication of that theory and shifts the conversation to focus on the ‘Native perspective’ instead of the non-Indigenous point of view.

Jeff Marlow and Alexandra Henrikson (obscured, FG) in The Thanksgiving Play. Photo by Jeff Lorch.

Caden’s admiration if not adoration for Logan and Jaxton’s work (though the former consists only of shows at Jefferson High School and the later performances Jaxton does on a street corner at the farmer’s market and with a “Let’s Learn!” series) is infectious and charming.  Marlow endows Caden with a passion for theatre that borders on the obsessive and that makes us really feel for the guy, even when he’s eyeing Alicia or when he later turns out to be the worst kind of writer/actor to work with.  As Alicia, Henrikson steers clear of the obvious choices that might have made her character a challenge to embrace and skillfully guides us to a place where we accept her for exactly what she says she is with no sense of judgment or doubt.  Bean’s Jaxton is a man whose focus on all things woke turns an argument with Logan into one of the funniest beats of the night when he states he is finally able to feel what it’s like not to be a privileged, white man.  There is a solid sequence between Alicia and Logan where these very different women find a way to appreciate each other that would have been a Bechdel Test wonder if the conversation hadn’t drifted back to Jaxton.  There’s a sense at that moment that Logan and Jaxton aren’t doing well, but nothing that has come before it has given us any indication that was the case.  Logan’s discovery regarding the joy Alicia’s simplicity can bring would have been enough to bond the two without bringing the lover into the equation.

L to R: Samantha Sloyan and Alexandra Henrikson in The Thanksgiving Play. Photo by Jeff Lorch.

There is no intermission, which gives the actors time to craft their characters arcs and conflicts that result in a blood-smeared, fake-severed-head tossing, insanity fest that ultimately attempts to stand in for the same kind of psychic crisis Thanksgiving might cause any of us who are even remotely woke in 2019.  This is not an easy holiday, and the complexity of it is presented quite ably by Caden and his history of what turned out to be many first Thanksgivings (surprise! – there is no one clear story if we look at the facts), some occurring many years before the Pilgrims landed.  For the most part, the hijinks work and blood ends up everywhere (faces, walls – you name it) but there is something obvious about the comedy as if we were being winked at a bit too often.  Perhaps it can be credited to some of the more overt physical choices, as when Jaxton and Logan engage their ‘decoupling’ and ‘re-coupling’ ceremonies before and after rehearsal.  The actors are committed to everything one thousand percent and that’s wonderful to watch but something holds us back from fully embracing every comic beat, and there are a lot of them.

It feels as though some choices don’t connect back to character, as when Caden carefully lays out the pages of the script he has written for the play.  He is so excited to hear his words read aloud for anyone other than elementary school kids and is so married to his work yet he doesn’t notice, care or react when the blood that he helps Jaxton scatter across the classroom set (oh the poor stage crew) essentially ruins those pages.  The sticky blood makes the pages stick to Jaxton and Logan’s shoes, yet Caden never notices.  The blood is such a surprise, it registers as shock and though Logan has a spectacular meltdown as soon as Jaxton and Caden stop, the blood fails to continue to register beyond that first beat of resounding ‘no!’.  Most bizarrely, Alicia takes it in stride.  Always image-conscious, she suddenly doesn’t care what has happened to her clothes, her face or her hair and for some reason, though she has been in socks for a time, she goes over to nonchalantly but her leather boots on as if the blood wasn’t a concern. 

L to R: Noah Bean, Alexandra Henrikson, Jeff Marlow, and Samantha Sloyan in The Thanksgiving Play. Photo by Jeff Lorch.

These moments stand out because there are so many others that are strong.  There has never been a more hilarious reaction from an Italian-American fighting for the honor of Columbus Day than the one we hear from Caden when Jaxton pushes it too far and suggests another name that’s better left as a surprise.  There has not been a more delightful meltdown to watch in recent memory than the one Logan undergoes during said headless sequence – don’t want to give too much away but for a Vegan who is super keyed into anything and everything that could be considered insensitive or offensive, let’s just say she’s pushed to a breaking point and the actress delivers beautifully.  Ultimately though, we have to ask; is all of the mayhem earned?  It doesn’t feel like it is.  The pace overall feels stymied, with each actor’s lines carrying the same amount of weight, which is a shame considering the way an opening song played with pace and tone to such great effect.  Henrikson obviously has a lot of fun with Alicia and her mimed killing of a turkey and later offering of her own breast during an improv are memorable and sublime. 

In the end, Logan comes to an interesting conclusion about the play that might carry more weight than we were ready for in the audience when I attended.  Wary of speaking for anyone as white people, Logan makes a choice that ultimately hints that no one should or can speak for anyone else.  It seemed to take us all a second to catch up to her concept.  Not to say things turn to the realm of all things serious but rather things get even more absurd and though the overall shape of the play may not have succeeded in getting us to this final beat entirely, the playtests us by giving us perhaps not the outcome we expected, but the one we deserve as a nation that still hasn’t come to terms with its history.  It has made a hash out of cultural appropriation and political correctness that will only taste bitter because it feels like truth.  The play picks at wounds that need to be dealt with and there is plenty to laugh at, even as you might wonder whether you should be ashamed for laughing (but laugh you must).  There are slippery moments where it is hard to grasp what the play might mean but the performances are strong enough to get us thinking, even if we are left with the idea that doing nothing might be the best solution for white people.

Scenic Design by Sara Ryung Clement.  Costume Design by Garry Lennon.  Lighting Design by Tom Ontiveros.  Sound Design by Cricket S. Meyers.  The Production Stage Manager is Samantha Cotton.  Casting Directing by Phyllis Schuringa, CSA.

This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.