THE THANKSGIVING PLAY at Geffen Playhouse
In the Geffen’s second space, a suburban middle school classroom is turned into a rehearsal space for the drama department “anywhere but in the Los Angeles area” as a terminally overdramatic earthmother tries to produce relevant outspoken social commentary to be performed by her teenaged charges. In other words, good luck with that.
In fact, her recent mounting of O'Neill's gritty The Iceman Cometh at her last school, featuring a cast of 15-year-olds, resulted in her termination after 327 horrified parents signed a petition demanding that she go poof. Now Logan (Samantha Sloyan) has been given a second chance, hired by another local school to create an all-new holiday-themed presentation to be called The Thanksgiving Play.
Germinating from the seriously wicked mind of award-winning playwright Larissa Fasthorse, another socially-conscious but far more successful theatre artist in the real world—you know, the one outside Los Angeles—the resulting play of the same name just opening at the Geffen should seriously become an annual holiday classic.
Just think twice if production stage manager Samantha Cotton decides not to come back next time. Without an industrial-strength clean-up crew to help her restore civility after every performance, this is one of those rare Equity jobs that deserves combat pay.
As important as it is for our melodramatic heroine to redeem her reputation and succeed this time out, admitting she has in her self-immolating life repeatedly been the product of her own decisions, she believes she must also remain faithful to her quest to save not only the planet but the 45 million turkeys who end up cooked to a crisp on a platter every fourth Thursday in November. “I do my best,” she insists with characteristic flourish, “and I hope the Buddha and my karma make up for it.”
Logan does have help, both from her equally overdramatic secret boyfriend Jaxton (Noah Bean), who bristles when reminded he's a street performer dependent on a tin can to provide his income (“I am a local celebrity!” he corrects), and Caden (Jeff Markow), an eager administrator assigned by the school district, they say, to provide research on the history of the holiday but surely also to keep an eye on their hardly predictable newest employee.
Still, Logan has something considerable on her side this time, having been awarded a grant providing funds to hire a real life professional actor, a term which Jaxton finds a bit dismissive of his own... er... career. She manages to unruffle his feathers (no seasonal pun intended) by assuring him she appreciates the body of his “work” but that she’s required by terms of the grant to hire a Native American to play a leading role. Besides, the guest artist about to arrive for their first rehearsal is a professional actress... from Los Angeles.
She reminds her offended partner that if anyone in their community is an expert on what it is to be an actor in LA it’s her, uniquely possessed of a firsthand understanding regarding the difficulties, disappointments, and calloused ins-and-outs of such a condition only too well having experienced it personally. Logan, it seems, once faced the daunting struggles and blistering inequities of living here in our reclaimed desert climes herself—for an entire six weeks.
This exciting casting choice is Logan’s guaranteed ace in the hole, but when the vapid and empty-headed Alicia (Alexandra Henrikson) shows up late and complaining about the bus service from her Motel 6, it doesn’t take long to realize the creation of The Thanksgiving Play might be more difficult than the original task the pilgrims had planning the very first feast, making sure both they and their guests all had seats at the table and that their weapons were kept hidden behind the trees.
First of all, the project is to be created from scratch with the participation of this quartet of wonderfully silly misfits and Alicia, although she wants to stick around long enough to be sure her role will be substantial, doesn’t Do improv, a discipline Logan tells her she considers a “world of yes.”
Alicia instead announces she’ll take off for now and they can call her back when they have a script, but to the rescue comes the ecstatic supernerd Caden, who turns out to be a fervent amateur dramatist and has arrived with a completed epic-length manuscript which begins a few centuries before what is acknowledged as the first documented Thanksgiving celebration.
“I’ve written 62 plays,” he bursts out excitedly, “and this is the first one I’ve ever heard read by people over nine!”
Although Logan has problems with Caden’s script, she is happy to have been gifted with a dramaturg, a position she considers the holy grail of American theatre. “What’s a dramaturg?” professional theatre actor Alicia asks with a signature bat of her eyelashes. “No one knows,” Logan admits dourly.
Yet the embattled director knows her obstacles are still considerable and, despite the flirting that permeates the air between Alicia and Jaxton, she must keep her pouty guest performer happy to keep her grant, something that soon gets severely tomahawked when her star tells her she's not a descendant of our indigenous ancestors at all but that Logan merely hired her from her Native American headshot. It’s the necklace in the photo that does the trick every time, Alicia believes, earnestly reminding the others that Native Americans “invented turquoise.”
Fasthorse is a master at jabbing us in our social consciousness with outrageous humor, creating exaggerated gothic characters and situations that address a heap of cultural inequities as our majorly fucked-up country prepares to collectively give thanks while we blithely ignore the marginalization of a large portion of our own citizenry.
She refers to her outrageously skewed play as a “comedy within a satire, as it is a satire but the comedic bits are the sugar that helps the medicine go down.” With the invaluable aid of director Michael John Garces and his brilliantly fearless and delightfully over-the-top performers, she pulls that trick off splendidly.
Even Sara Ryung Clements’ drab classroom set, slyly accentuated with such prefect detail as a bobblehead of William Shakespeare watching over the ensuing storm of insanity from atop a filing cabinet and theatrical posters of past productions adorning the walls. Besides featuring middle school standards such as Grease and Our Town, if you look closely you'll notice they also include questionable former mountings of American Buffalo, Extremities, 4.48 Psychosis, and offering a hint of what’s to come from the Bard’s bloodiest tragedy Titus Andronicus—all productions I personally would love to have seen.
The Thanksgiving Play is the Slings and Arrows of live theatre, with much of it aimed at people who have been there to be able to understand the humor. Judging from the reaction of many of the opening nighters in the audience, most of Fasthorse’s “in” jokes went directly over their heads, something that alienated them further when papier-mache heads of our dispatched Native American forebearers began to get tossed and kicked around the stage as though balls in a rugby match and a Texas Chainsaw-sized load of gore ultimately covered both the walls and the actors with a few pricey gallons of stage blood.
Still, this is LA and surely there are enough of us here to appreciate this production and keep it returning each November as a yearly Thanksgiving companion to our beloved and equally brazen homegrown Christmas classic Bob’s Holiday Office Party, which has been making a monumental mess nightly each December as a sold-out Lost Angeles tradition since 1995.
One thing brought to mind by The Thanksgiving Play, as Alicia is questioned by Jaxton about the acting technique she utilizes to practice her craft and bring her characters to life. “Oh, I just pretend I’m them,” she chirps brightly.
While helping to build a set for a show at a local 99-seat theatre a couple of years ago, my boyfriend talked to a fellow volunteer who told him her day job was as a telemarketer for a theatrical ticketing service, a position she said she loved because she could spend all day talking to people who loved theatre—meaning obviously she'd been working there for less than two weeks, I suspect.
Still, she told him she also teaches acting, so if he “really wanted to become an actor,” he should take classes from her. Aside from the fact that Hugh is a brilliant actor, as well as a published author, poet, and playwright with a partner who makes much of his living, besides reviewing plays such as this one, teaching acting and coaching spoiled superstars, he has two college degrees, the second of which is in Acting for Film from the New York Film Academy.
Still, as a humble guy raised on a New Mexican Navajo reservation always brought up to be respectful, he kept his resume to himself and asked his proposed professora what technique she taught.
“What do you mean?” she asked. “I mean," he explained, "do you teach Stanislavsky or Meisner or Strasburg or Uta Hagan or Stella Adler or what?”
“No, no, I don’t teach any of that,” she answered. “I just teach people how to act.”
Please help me campaign to see that The Thanksgiving Play returns to the Geffen next November, won't you? Lord knows us jaded Angelenos need the laughs and I'm afraid by next year at this time we may need 'em more than ever.
* * *