'Manahatta' review — Native American family drama modernizes history

Read our four-star review of Manahatta off Broadway, Mary Kathryn Nagle's play making its New York premiere at The Public Theater through December 23.

Amelia Merrill
Amelia Merrill

Many of the characters in Mary Kathryn Nagle’s Manahatta, now running at The Public Theater, wear their naïve hearts on their sleeves, appearing trustworthy until the moment they’re proven otherwise. Jane (Elizabeth Frances), a Lenape businesswoman from Oklahoma, loves math and wants to succeed against the odds, not realizing how her barrier-breaking Wall Street job could hurt others.

Jakob (Joe Tapper, who doubles as Jane’s boss, Joe), a Dutch settler in 1620s Manahatta, can’t imagine trading with the friendly Lenape could lead to violence. Some of Manahatta’s villains are overt caricatures, like Peter Minuit (Jeffrey King), the director of New Netherland who blatantly does not care how many Lenape he needs to cheat or kill to get his way.

Much of Manahatta unfolds predictably, not just because New Yorkers may already know the history: The Dutch “buy” the island for something like $1,000 modern dollars in a hotly debated scheme of trickery, involving deceits of both language and intent. Jane gets morally in over her head at work, and Jane’s mother Bobbie (Sheila Tousey) can’t pay her mortgage.

But it’s not what happens, but how it happens, that makes Manahatta worth seeing: The choreography of the Lenape as the office stands in for a natural landscape, a desk now a rock or a hill; the mirrors of Marcelo Martínez García’s set that do not let us escape our role in the ongoing displacement of the island’s people; the realization of both audience and character that Frances is not simply playing both Jane and Le-le-wa’-you, but that Jane in many ways is Le-le-wa’-you. This narrative device is compelling, though it doesn’t leave Frances much room to breathe onstage as we hurtle to the climax of the 2008 crash.

King doubles as Dick, a Lehman Brothers boss who manages to engender sympathy as his empire collapses around him. The most affecting antagonist, however, is Michael (David Kelly), a pastor and bank worker who adopted a Native child. “When you came into my care, you’d been living with your grandparents, who if I recall, hardly spoke a word of English,” he tells Luke (Enrico Nassi), now grown up and conflicted over working at the bank. He does not comprehend the violence of his words, the linguistic and cultural death over which he’s presided. His ignorance is chilling.

The characters of Manahatta make questionable decisions we are meant to criticize – Nagle obviously does not endorse the prioritization of greed and power over life and family. But certain decisions seem less logical, even if a character’s pride is their fatal flaw; Bobbie frustrates in a way that does not serve the story, instead setting up conflict for the sake of a tragic ending by refusing to accept Jane’s help. She has a few loose threads that aren’t quite tied as Nagle weaves in a story of language loss and the hopes that Debra (Rainbow Dickerson) has of revitalization.

Tousey’s performance, however, makes up for these missteps with her quiet command of the stage. Laurie Woolery’s production isn’t understated, but it does make a statement.

Manahatta is at The Public Theater through December 23. Get Manahatta tickets on New York Theatre Guide.

Photo credit: Enrico Nassi and Elizabeth Frances in Manahatta. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Originally published on

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