Broadway’s Very Funny “The Thanksgiving Play” Arrives Possibly Just Past Its Best-By Date

Truth be told, I am not an American, but a Canadian living in NYC, brought up on the television and film imagery that surrounds the fable that is ‘American Thanksgiving’. It’s a wildly inaccurate formulation, not based on any real history, as we learn quite inventively in the new Broadway production of The Thanksgiving Play, currently being restaged at Second Stage’s Helen Hayes Theatre. It’s a hilarious hoot of a play, etched in its uber-wokeness and earnestness by a cast of comedic pros setting the table with the goods as deliciously as possible. This is a play that I saw years ago, at Playwrights Horizons back in 2018, but here in its updated remount, the flame is still ignited and the ideas still served up, but somehow, maybe because of the political landscape surrounding the idea of being ‘too woke’ for your own good seems a bit dated and past its prime, even as I laughed all the way back to the dinner table.

Scott Foley and Katie Finneran Photo by Joan Marcus.

The ‘natives gave to me’ videos that are presented before the feast even begins (and throughout this 100 min play) are a welcome addition, pushing forth all the fictionalized and prolific myths associated with this holiday that my mother always refers to as, “just another Thursday in November“. The holiday itself seemed quaint but obsessionally commerce-driven, especially to us socially minded Canadians who already have had our harvest feast back on our Canadian Thanksgiving in October, oddly enough on the same day as American Columbus Day. Ironic. The one good thing for this Canadian boy was that it didn’t feel like the holiday was marinated in a completely false narrative, one that even I knew deep down in his hungry turkey-lovin’ heart had nothing to do with reality. Although that framework in Canada might be getting a bit murkier with every passing year.

Chris Sullivan and Scott Foley Photo by Joan Marcus.

The other thing I’ll come clean about is that, besides not being from here, I am also a card-carrying Status North American Indigenous person of the Mohawk tribe.  My grandmother was Mohawk and my grandfather was Iroquois, making my mother (who was born and raised on a reservation), my sister, and myself, Mohawk, following the maternal lineage, as they do. With that knowledge running through my ‘Status Indian” blood, American Thanksgiving always was an odd celebration of the glorious family unit and a history of domination and destruction of Indigenous People. I will admit, that I always enjoyed the tradition of the family gathering around a table for a feast, especially when I carved out a family of magnificent misfits and fabulous friends here in NYC, but the story that was stuffed into that giant turkey always tasted a bit foul and maybe left my stomach feeling a bit queazy. So reading about FastHorse who grew up in South Dakota and is an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, Sicangu Lakota Nation, I was joyously curious about what she was going to bring to this particular Thanksgiving table. And I wasn’t disappointed. Not completely.

It’s Meta, so it might be OK,” we are told as this topical and timely comedy, brought forth by FastHorse (Democracy Project; What Would Crazy Horse Do?), gets its act going, starting out solidly with a cartoonish video pageant that registers. Americans have been force-fed this created story with glee from their first days as young schoolchildren. They have been programmed to believe with all their traditional heart that pilgrims and a turkey should stand side by side, singing a happy song, with an almost hypnotically repetitive nature. Those kids are taught about the joy and fun of the Thanksgiving dinner and the collective holiday spirit about sharing and community, while most worry more about the Black Friday sales that will come the day after. It’s ridiculous, absurd, and delightful; this video and all the others that follow, thanks to the strong work by projection designer David Bengali (Broadway’s 1776) and the cast of children in them (Mollie Fink, Dasan Turner, Ishan De Silva, and Atticus Scott-Williamson), all served up with a dash of cranberry sauce, in an uncomfortable sandwich of American culture run amuck.

D’Arcy Carden, Chris Sullivan, Katie Finneran, and Scott Foley Photo by Joan Marcus.

These are the moments that last, children’s songs smothered in the blood of turkeys slaughtered, and ”Indians’ marginalized, and as directed with comic sharpness and style by Rachel Chavkin (Broadway’s Hadestown), The Thanksgiving Play discovers, through some well-scripted dialogue and ridiculously pompous improv, some seriously yummy commentary is dutifully created, unpacking and servicing up hilariously the crazy dynamic that exists in American culture around a completely fabricated event that makes Americans feel all warm and fuzzy on a late Thursday in November, but just happens to leave out all the bits about the horrific genocide of the Native American population.

FastHorse implants a whole lot of satire into this flipping of this American traditional bird, unearthing mounds of history and serving up the truth next to the myth. Is a complicated funny rendering, attempting wholeheartedly to be shocking and relevant. A few really well-meaning theater artists and teachers gather together in a classroom to somehow, through a revolution of ideas, co-create a more culturally sensitive Thanksgiving school pageant, while offending no one, and skewing everything all at once. The Thanksgiving Play wants to simultaneously honor Native American Heritage Month and quell white privilege guilt and shame, all for the sake of a grade school audience, although also, deep down, a bit for their own politically righteous hearts. It’s a twisted ridiculous set-up as the neurotic and desperate Logan, deftly portrayed by the brilliant Katie Finneran (Broadway’s Noises Off), dons the guise of a high school drama teacher and the dedicated director of this Thanksgiving grade school pageant, trying so hard along with her boyfriend and fellow politically-correct addict, Jaxton, sharply portrayed by Scott Foley (MTC’s The Violet Hour), to roast this communal turkey of an idea in hopes to elevate the tradition far up and beyond any others.

D’Arcy Carden, Scott Foley, and Chris Sullivan Photo by Joan Marcus.

With an open-hearted embrace of collaboration and a sharing of ideas through improv, Logan brings in an elementary school history teacher named Caden, perfectly portrayed by Chris Sullivan (Broadway’s Nice Work If You Can Get It), who has secretly dreamed of writing a real play, a true play rich in historical content like mashed potatoes drenched in gravy, adding to the weight and importance of a tradition out of tune with reality. His ideas are grand, historically accurate, wildly interesting, and completely out of tune with the more complex ambitions of Logan.  Taking grants from every topical arena she can find, Logan wants to infuse this project with cutting-edge privilege checking, paying homage to the Native American experience that has always been left out of the drama.  She hires what she believes to be a Native American movie actress from L.A., Alicia, diabolically well played by D’Arcy Carden (Janet in “The Good Place“), with hopes and dreams of changing the traditional tale all for the children. Basking in her own scattered self-importance that needs a whole lot of attention and constant vegan basting, Logan is wildly off target, creating chaos and disaster all around, well, they all do, flying hard into a cacophony of ideas and finding nothing to grab hold of. Which they all do with superb hilarious relish.

It’s not surprising, this endless minefield of ideas and representation, that with all these kooks, I mean cooks in the kitchen, this feast will go wildly off course, deliciously devouring one another in their attempt to be truthful and correct in a way that is a specific commentary on white liberalism in the theatre world. It’s smart in its chaotic nothingness, and it’s wicked in its wild worldliness, but in some ways, as the chefs start to collide like a super overcooked politically correct pack of Marx Brothers impersonators, the point and the finale get a bit lost in the preparation.  Their timing and performances are spot on, especially Carden who delivers a character so well embodied and cooked that you just can’t look away. Just like the set designed by Riccardo Hernandez (Broadway’s Jagged Little Pill) that opens up the space to the high heavens for a superb, but maybe less meaningful dramatic effect.

D’Arcy Carden and Katie Finneran Photo by Joan Marcus.

With strong lighting designed by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew (Broadway’s Kimberly Akimbo), sound design by Mikaal Sulaiman (Broadway’s Thoughts of a Colored Man), and costuming by Lux Haac (Second Stage’s 53% Of), The Thanksgiving Play serves up a feast. It is hilariously fun and inviting, happily making you want to pull your chair up to. Unfortunately, maybe the play is just slightly past its ‘best by‘ date, losing some flavor and focus as we watch the facts kill the dream with aplomb. It’s definitely cutting and edgy, smothered in an absurdist concoction of wit and demented humor, but like the play Logan and team are trying to create in the end, The Thanksgiving Play fails to live up to the high hoped desire of the plan. Somewhere, in this very fun and funny night at the theatre, the point never fully makes its way to the table fully cooked and ready to eat.

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