Review of All the Natalie Portmans at MCC Theater

  • Our critic's rating:
    Date:
    February 25, 2020
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    All the Natalie Portmans, an imperfect but affecting play at MCC Theater about one family’s experience of loss, poverty and alcoholism examines an African American family in crisis, disintegrating slowly, against the backdrop of structural racism.

    Samuel (Joshua Boone), his 16-year old sister Keyonna (Kara Young) and their oft absent mother Ovetta (Montego Glover) live crammed into a small basement apartment. Ovetta works nights as a housekeeper at an hotel, making just enough to scrape by. Samuel and Keyonna often find themselves on their own for days at a time, hungry and fearful that they won’t have enough money for the rent. Ovetta, mourning the loss of her husband, finds relief at the bottom of a glass, sometimes sharing a bottle with their landlord Epps (a roaring Raphael Peacock). Samuel has graduated high school and works at a bar. In an uncharacteristic display of anger he gets into a fight that lands him in jail for 90 days, dealing yet another blow to an already strained family.

    Keyonna dreams of becoming a screenwriter, immersing herself in movies she watches over and over again. She has pasted images from magazines on the wall, creating a vision board for her future in film. Oddly enough the majority of them are white actresses. Her inner life is so strong Keyonna has created an imaginary Natalie Portman (a delightful Elise Kibler), who appears throughout the play dressed as various memorable Portman characters. They act out scenes from Portman’s movies in a welcome fantasy that adds levity to an exhausting reality. Keyonna is slated to be the One Who Will Get Out. Her brilliance and attendance at a charter school portend a bright tomorrow, if she can just live through today. AP Calculus is easy; life is hard.

    As Keyonna, Kara Young is incredible, combining winning charm, vulnerability and fierce strength in a nuanced characterization that centers the entire production. With every forthright step and display of bravado, Young lives much larger than her tiny frame. Then, with a little birdlike tilt of the head, peeking out of the corner of her eye, she expresses Keyonna’s cheekiness. Young’s interactions with Joshua Boone as Samuel are so easy and natural you believe the relationship immediately. Boone is by turns gentle, funny and brash.

    Kate Whoriskey has directed the show efficiently, not allowing the energy to lag for a moment. Given the nature of the material, such attention to detail is essential. Some of the writing is a little too on the nose. The second act is stronger than the first, giving Montego Glover as Ovetta more to work with. Given the opportunity to dig into the material, Glover reaches a greater depth in her sympathetic characterization of a woman trapped by poverty and loss.

    The Natalie Portman appearances were too fleeting for my taste. It was not clear to me who she was or how she fit into Keyonna’s life until the end of the play. A storyline that involves a young woman Chantel (a sweet Renika Williams) doesn’t really fly either. The transition from bubbly girl to forlorn waif is too abrupt. Nevertheless, All the Natalie Portmans is good theater, with touching bitter sweetness that lifts one’s hopes for this family. Where there are Portmans there is hope!

    (Photo by Daniel J. Vasquez)

    "One mystery remains at the end of the play. Why Natalie Portman? Sure, she makes a beautifully bonkers ballerina. (Never mind that Black Swan was released in 2010 and this show is set in 2009.) Or perhaps it’s the Star Wars legacy: As silver-screen role models go, you can’t do much better than a badass queen turned senator. And All the Natalie Portmans is certainly a very catchy title. If only the play itself seemed more than a collection of Hollywood clippings."
    Melissa Rose Bernardo for Time Out New York

    "Kate Whoriskey directs this talented cast, but hasn’t found a way to incorporate the Portman fantasies into the narrative. It’s theatrical and often funny whenever Kibler shows up in another iconic movie get-up (costumes by Jennifer Moeller), but after the initial surprise, Johnson’s writing here isn’t extravagant enough to make Keyonna’s dreams come alive on stage. Natalie Portman, whatever her outfit, tends to distract from rather than enhance this broken kitchen-sink drama."
    Robert Hofler for The Wrap