‘The Thanksgiving Play’ Lays Bare Liberal Pretensions Badly

In 2023, the targets of Larissa FastHorse's satire seem not just dated but also uncomfortably close to agitprop.

Two actresses and two actors on children's chairs on a set that looks like an elementary school classroom.
D’Arcy Carden, Chris Sullivan, Katie Finneran and Scott Foley Joan Marcus

In the first few minutes of Larissa FastHorse’s The Thanksgiving Play, an actor and high school drama teacher perform a silent “decoupling ritual,” as the script calls it, that serves as the dramaturgical equivalent of a palate cleanser. “Nothing but gender-neutral actor/director respect from here on,” says the actor to his girlfriend as they slowly move apart from one another, traveling from the plane of affection to neutrality. FastHorse’s play enacts, albeit inadvertently and with considerably less charm, its own decoupling ritual from reality. In its world, a group of four white, well-intentioned educators get together in a classroom to create a “fully devised educational play” about Thanksgiving for a group of elementary school students. Mayhem ensues.

A lot is riding on this professionally for Logan (Katie Finneran), the closest the play has to a protagonist. She has secured several grants to stage the play, including the “Gender Equity in History Grant,” the “Excellence in Educational Theater Fellowship,” the “Go! Girls! Scholastic Leadership Mentorship,” and—most consequentially—the “Native American Heritage Month Awareness Through Art Grant.” She’s also teetering dangerously close to cancellation after staging a version of The Iceman Cometh with a cast of high schoolers. Hundreds of parents have signed a petition calling for Logan to be fired, but she has also secured the faith of the grant givers, suggesting she’s conjuring a tempest in a teapot.

There’s a dissonance that becomes emblematic of larger problems with FastHorse’s play and which the play’s internal logic can’t sustain. It’s often unclear who FastHorse is poking fun at: is she sending up white privilege, whose beneficiaries often fail up, or is she deriding the parents who unceasingly police the borders of their children’s education? Such questions worry away at the fabric of the play until what’s left is a threadbare “messterpiece,” to borrow a phrase from Scott Brown.

FastHorse calls her play a “comedy within a satire,” but given the Whac-A-Mole nature of censorship in schools—Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ proposal of the Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees (Woke) Act, the banning of certain books in some school districts and the years-long nontroversy over teaching kids critical race theory—the targets of her satire seem conspicuously dated. The Thanksgiving Play was initially produced in 2018, first at Artists Repertory Theatre and later that year at Playwrights Horizons, yet it seems that very little thought has been given to the optics of staging this play in 2023; only a few changes have been made to the original script, including one pointed reference to doing the play-within-a-play “post-BLM.”

Next to the threat of textbooks being edited and curricula being whitewashed, the proposition of having a group of “enlightened white allies” (as Logan refers to herself and her boyfriend) write a play about Native American history seems piddling. When one of the actors gives Logan a mason jar filled with glass from broken windows and tells her that “it’s symbolic of the way we’re going to create this play; we start with this pile of jagged facts and misguided governmental policies and historical stereotypes about race, then turn all that into something beautiful and dramatic and educational for the kids,” we may cringe at his Golden Retriever earnestness, but it feels churlish and condescending to laugh.

The sentiment is not that far off from what FastHorse expressed in a note for Playwrights Horizons’ 2018 production: “I need people to act and make a mistake so we can fix it and hopefully learn to do it better next time.” The play, under Rachel Chavkin’s direction, is not any better than its production five years ago, and in some ways fares even worse. A few years ago, it may have been easier to scoff at the antics of bumbling do-gooder artists, but the moon of mundane events has a way of turning the tide. The play still comes across as an indictment of liberal pretensions, but it’s all the more rancid and gratuitous for being so.

The central question posed by the play—is it ethical for a play about Native Americans to be produced without the involvement of any Native American actors—is, as one might expect, answered unequivocally in the negative. That it takes four adult actors (helped by a group of talented child actors who appear intermittently in filmed skits) ninety-five minutes to reach this conclusion insults the intelligence of both the audience and the characters, who never progress beyond mere stereotypes.

Jaxton (Scott Foley, in echt slacker mode) is the personification of a vape pen—an actor-slash-yoga-dude. “Like, teach yoga?” asks Caden (Chris Sullivan), an elementary school history teacher with the social skills of his students. “Just be yoga,” Jaxton clarifies to his nebbish foil. Logan, a coiled spring, wants to be a mentor (read: savior) to women like Alicia (D’Arcy Carden), helping her “recover from the false value placed on her sexuality.” Alicia, a hot commodity from Los Angeles the others initially believe to be Native American, fully embraces her conventional sex appeal and blithely tells Logan, “I’m not that smart; I’ve been tested.”

A man in faux armor and a man dressed like a Scottish warrior holding a black trash bag on a set meant to look like a grade school classroom.
Chris Sullivan and Scott Foleyin Joan Marcus

As the actors engage in the “fluid” process of co-creating a play, the scenes pendulate from the twee to the berserk; the devised work reaches a nadir when Jaxton and Caden, in face paint and incongruous warrior costumes, start kicking around decapitated Indian heads that disconcertingly leak a blood-like substance. The representation “is true, and gets a Native American presence into our play,” says Caden. Cue groans from the audience.

FastHorse, who is a member of the Sicangu Lakota Nation, has written other plays with Native American characters including What Would Crazy Horse Do?, a despairing comedy about Native American twins who make a suicide pact and form an uneasy alliance with members of the KKK. Yet she has faced obstacles in getting those plays produced.

“The number one reason that I’m given for my plays not getting produced is casting,” she told Playwrights Horizons. With The Thanksgiving Play, she decided to eliminate that recalcitrant variable by writing a play with no Native American actors. It worked. The Thanksgiving Play is one of her most frequently produced plays, and the current staging at the Helen Hayes Theater makes her the “first known Native American female playwright to have a show produced on Broadway,” according to Playbill. That’s no small achievement but also a dispiriting vindication of what she was told all along. The four characters obliquely bear this out: they ultimately conclude that their only feasible option—the only thing they can do without “piss[ing] off the funders or the parents or the universe”—is to do nothing. “We need to be less. Do less. That’s the lesson.”

The audience is left wondering: is it a lesson, though, or a private and unfunny joke?

The Thanksgiving Play is running at the Hayes Theater through June 4. ‘The Thanksgiving Play’ Lays Bare Liberal Pretensions Badly