'The Thanksgiving Play' review — white guilt gives way to wild comedy

Read our four-star review of The Thanksgiving Play on Broadway, starring D'Arcy Carden, Katie Finneran, Scott Foley, and Chris Sullivan, at the Hayes Theater.

Amelia Merrill
Amelia Merrill

“On the third day of Thanksgiving, the Natives gave to me four bows and arrows, three Native headdresses […] and a pumpkin in a pumpkin patch.” This parody song begins The Thanksgiving Play, playwright Larissa FastHorse’s Broadway debut — the first ever for a Native American woman — at Second Stage's Hayes Theater. The song, which FastHorse culled from teacher-oriented Pinterest boards, drags on long enough to make you squirm in fear of hearing the whole thing.

Sitting in the mostly white audience, I wondered if the child actors understood what they were saying. Did they know they were crooning a racist retelling of history to the raucous laughter of an audience about to be skewered in a satire of their own behavior? Did it matter?

In a recent New Yorker profile, FastHorse, a member of the Sicangu Lakota nation, stated that the “assumptions you’re making of what’s acceptable behavior in theatre are completely different from what is normal behavior in so many cultures.” It may be awkward to listen to young children recount racist and violent visions of Thanksgiving’s disputed history, but this discomfort may be the point.

Veteran star of theatre and physical comedy Katie Finneran leads The Thanksgiving Play as Logan, a well-meaning if misguided drama teacher desperate to devise a Thanksgiving-themed play that tells the “truth” but won’t get her fired. Her witless partner in life and work, Jaxton (Scott Foley), grants her the first rehearsal gift of a mason jar “made with recycled glass from broken windows in housing projects” that he found at the farmer’s market. The audience, though they were the perfect demographic to buy such an object, roared.

Logan and Jaxton are met by Caden (Chris Sullivan, with impeccable comedic timing), an enthusiastic history teacher and amateur playwright eager to infuse the elementary school play with a dose of dramaturgy. Logan has received a variety of school arts grants with long titles like “Go! Girls! Scholastic Leadership Mentorship” and can afford to also hire a professional actress — a Native American one.

Alicia (D’Arcy Carden) has Disneyland experience and gorgeous high cheekbones, which is enough for Logan to hire her and the men to defer to her (Jaxton out of respect for her perceived culture, Caden out of his instant crush). The revelation that Alicia is not Native is not a spoiler so much as an inevitability, one that shakes Logan to her core and forces the group to reexamine the politics of staging a Thanksgiving play at all.

It’s a little disconcerting to hear so much laughter from the very theatregoers FastHorse caricatures — people who are not just the punchline, but also the problem — but FastHorse takes that laughter all the way to the bank. The Thanksgiving Play has had a vibrant regional theatre life, becoming one of the most produced plays in the country in the 2019-20 season, and returns with a script revised to reference the murder of George Floyd and how teachers now “see color, but we don’t speak for it.”

Spring doesn't seem the most logical season for the show's Broadway bow, but Rachel Chavkin’s tight production arrives with panache. Costume designer Lux Haac invokes the quintessential drama teacher vibe in Logan’s corduroy wardrobe, while scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez delights in the play’s Bacchanalian twist. Logan mines theatricality from the group with her demands to dig deeper and to be more honest with themselves, then shuts down the bloody spectacle, screeching her fears of the school board.

The scene is a moment of triumph for the designers, but it doesn’t move the characters forward, perhaps on purpose. They will always be stuck in a circle of white guilt and trip over themselves while they debate how to escape. The damage is real, both on stages across the nation and off, but FastHorse's exploration of it is for everyone’s benefit, striking the balance between educational and entertaining without hammering home the reminder.

The Thanksgiving Play is at the Hayes Theater through June 4. Get The Thanksgiving Play tickets on New York Theatre Guide.

Photo credit: D'Arcy Carden, Chris Sullivan, Katie Finneran, and Scott Foley in The Thanksgiving Play. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

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