Review | ‘Thanksgiving Play’ satirizes attempt at cultural sensitivity

Scott Foley and Katie Finneran in "The Thanksgiving Play."
Scott Foley and Katie Finneran in “The Thanksgiving Play.”
Photo by Joan Marcus

The greatest ever – at least in my opinion – Thanksgiving pageant can be found in the 1993 film comedy “Addams Family Values,” which opens with a cheerily ridiculous opening number (in which the children, dressed as turkeys, chant “eat us!”) and climaxes with Christina Ricci’s Wednesday, playing Pocahontas, suddenly taking over the play (to the horror of the directors, played by Christine Baranski and Peter MacNicol) and leading the Native Americans (played by other misfits) in an assault on the Pilgrims (played by the popular kids).

While there is no indication that composer Marc Shaiman and screenwriter Paul Rudnick have considered turning this sequence into a full-length show, a very different kind of satire of a children’s Thanksgiving pageant has arrived on Broadway in the form of Larissa FastHorse’s “The Thanksgiving Play,” which marks the first play written by a Native American woman to be produced on Broadway.

Rather than simply satirize the traditional, historically and culturally sanitized Thanksgiving pageant, “The Thanksgiving Play” takes aim primarily at a group of well-meaning, culturally “enlightened” educators and aspiring theater artists who set out to create a 45-minute Thanksgiving show for children that authentically captures the Native American voice, including a stressed-out drama teacher (Katie Finneran), a spacey yoga instructor who moonlights a street performer (Scott Foley), an enthusiastic history teacher who also writes plays (Chris Sullivan), and a dimwitted actress (D’Arcy Carden) who previously did Disney theme park shows.

Over the course of the first rehearsal, their play (intended to be created through group improvisation exercises) becomes increasingly chaotic, bizarre, and inappropriate (at one point, decapitated heads are thrown around like footballs). FastHorse also throws in some debate over cultural authenticity and whether actors should perform roles without regard to their racial or ethnic background. “Is Lumière a real candlestick?” the actress asks. “Actually he kind of was,” another answers.

Given the current political atmosphere, it’s not hard to imagine “The Thanksgiving Play” being interpreted by many as an indictment of “critical race theory,” diversity and inclusion and other progressive values, which was likely not the intention.

I regret that I did not see “The Thanksgiving Play” when it was presented Off-Broadway with a different cast and creative team. (It has also been presented regionally and as a starry Zoom reading with Keanu Reeves and Bobby Cannavale). On Broadway, it comes off as static, slow, and overextended, and it is hard to determine at first glance whether the fault lies primarily with the play itself or the aggressively over-the-top direction of Rachel Chavkin (“Hadestown”) – or perhaps both.

The performances are outsized in nature and become increasingly one-dimensional and irritating over the course of 90 minutes, so much so that the most enjoyable parts of the production are interspersed film sequences of children (who appear to have no interest in what they are doing) performing cheesy traditional Thanksgiving songs, including one set to “The Twelve Days of Christmas” and enumerates gifts such as woven blankets, headdresses, bows and arrows, moccasins, teepees, and tom-toms.

Hayes Theater, 240 W. 44th St., 2st.com. Through June 4.