Theater Review: Red Herring Closes 2021 With Frenetic Farce ‘The Thanksgiving Play’
Red Herring finishes off its 2021 season with a bang in the form of Larissa Fasthorse’s delightful skewering of liberal sacred cows, The Thanksgiving Play, directed by Mark Mann.
Harried theatre teacher Logan (Elizabeth Harelik Falter), stares down the barrel of a 300-parent petition following her student production of the Eugene O’Neill downbeat masterpiece of alcoholism and hypocrisy The Iceman Cometh (the posters around the set also indicate non-kid-appropriate projects like Venus in Furs and Glengarry Glen Ross).
To save her job and meet the obligations of a variety of grants she’s won money from, she tries to assemble a new, “appropriate” play for Native American Heritage Month, around the holiday of Thanksgiving. In addition to her street performer doofus of a partner, Jaxton (Gabe Simms), Logan recruits history teacher and closet playwright Caden (Todd Covert) and “real LA actress” Alicia (April Warner).
Things start going hilariously wrong the second Logan announces this is a derived work built in collaboration between the cast. Every buzz word and every good intention bubbles to the surface and messily bursts, creating an ever-larger mess. Fasthorse’s play uses screwball rhythms to highlight what Jaxton calls “inherently inequitable.”
Trying to do right by a group of people, in Logan’s case indigenous Americans, runs afoul of rhetoric none of the characters ever really thought about the meanings behind and unexamined biases and knee-jerk reactions. The running gag where Logan says she’s “honoring [someone’s] space” or “holding space” climaxes in the realization they’re in over their heads… and the characters congratulate themselves for doing nothing.
Those heavier themes are the meat of The Thanksgiving Play but they don’t weigh down this cracking, fast – an hour and twenty-five minutes with no intermission – comedy. Mann uses the physicality of his cast and well-oiled comedic timing to create a series of explosions, each funnier and more dazzling than the last. Falter and Simms staged an argument that almost turns into an S&M praise and degradation session – with Simms saying, “Do you know how hard it is for a straight white male to feel ‘less than’ in this world?” as the linchpin – which made me laugh until my lungs hurt.
Covert’s look of hurt and horror when Simms’ Jaxton pointed out his “historically correct” dialogue reads like a sex comedy in another light was one of a dozen dazzling, understated jabs in a performance that walked exactly the right line of cartoonish. Falter’s use of dynamics and expressions – one toward the end chilled my blood – as Logan smashes right into the limits of the character’s talents keep us if not rooting for her, at least understanding her as things slide from the ridiculous to the sublime.
Simms and Warner have an interesting two-sides-of-the-coin dynamic, both actors who are self-aware in surprising ways and hilariously dense in every other sense. Orbiting around the gravity of Falter’s performance, they bob and weave, and stake out proper territory.
The Thanksgiving holiday is hard to write about for a lot of reasons – there always seemed to be running jokes about the lack of specials for it when I was a kid. Fasthorse’s play finds the perfect tenor for it, without getting too meta or cerebral, grounding the comedy in the ambitions and insecurities of a classic group of misfits, and it’s hard to imagine this getting a better production than Mann and Red Herring provide.
The Thanksgiving Play runs through November 21 with performances at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and more information, visit redherringtheater.org.