Review: An Earnest Yet Awkward Land Acknowledgement for ‘Manahatta’

Mary Kathryn Nagle’s play shifts between the Dutch colonization of Manhattan and the subprime mortgage crisis, a concept that looks good on paper but diminishes the characters and their choices.

Elizabeth Frances and Joe Tapper in Manahatta at The Public Theater. Joan Marcus

Manahatta | 1hr 45mins. No intermission. | Public Theater | 425 Lafayette Street | 212-967-7555

Every history play has its moral. The Trojan Women: Victory in war brings shame to all. Richard III: Power may be gained (not held) by hypocrisy and murder. A Man for All Seasons and The Crucible: Convictions are worth dying for. So what’s the takeaway from Mary Kathryn Nagle’s Manahatta, which juxtaposes the 17th-century Dutch colonization of this island and the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis? Hard to choose one. White folks monetize, steal, and destroy everything they touch? Ownership is the root of all evil? Ancestors never die?

Maybe the clue is something Bobbie (Sheila Tousey) says to Luke (Enrico Nassi). She has leveraged a bank loan on an adjustable-rate mortgage in order to pay for her late husband’s crushing hospital bills. Debt-ridden Bobbie now faces foreclosure. Luke, like Bobbie, is Native American, working for his (white) father at the bank. He’s guilt-ridden over helping Bobbie into this financial quagmire. She’s philosophical about it. “[W]e need folks like you, to walk in both worlds,” Bobbie says. “You can talk their talk, walk their walk, but the moment you forget who you are, they have you. And then you’re walkin’ in one world, not two.” 

It’s a powerful warning, one I wish Nagle had heeded. By running a Lenape family’s misfortunes through a dual-era structure, she prioritizes time-jumping echoes—between the “purchase” of Manahatta in 1626 and the housing market crash—over credible human drama. What it means, in practice, is an academic concept that looks good on paper, but yields shallow characters, wooden dialogue, and a perverse sense of historical fatalism.

Jeffrey King, Elizabeth Frances, and Joe Tapper in Manahatta at The Public Theater. Joan Marcus

The opening scene contains both the good and not-so-good in Nagle’s message-forward tactic. We begin at Lehman Brothers six years before its ignominious collapse. Jane Snake (Elizabeth Frances), a young go-getter descended from the Lenape has arrived for a job interview. “You’re late,” stereotypically rude and cocky exec Joe (Joe Tapper) barks at her. Jane fires back, “I got lost.” These blunt declarations establish a dialectical arc for Jane. She is late, by centuries: in the play’s symbolic economy, Jane embodies the Lenape return from the West, where her tribe was forced to relocate long ago. Jane’s also lost. A recent graduate in financial mathematics, she covets this job so much she left her father back in Oklahoma while he was about to undergo open-heart surgery. Jane has wandered from the path of family duty and a sense of community—even if she’s “home.” 

All this sounds promising, if heavy-handed—but then the implausible details and clunky lines creep in. Jane notes that Joe lives within walking distance of the office (unclear why she knows that), and he snaps that he took his helicopter. Now, finance bros may be wasteful cads, but how many actually fly choppers from Soho to FiDi? When Jane returns to Anadarko, Oklahoma a few days after her father’s death on the operating table, the home vibe is scarcely more believable. Jane races around to find Bobbie’s wampum necklace for the funeral, and Bobbie seems more upset by Jane not bringing postcards from New York than burying her husband. When Jane’s sister, Debra (Rainbow Dickerson), arrives and learns that Jane landed the job on Wall Street, her lame (but loaded) response is, “They let Indians do that?” We learn little about the father, besides that he tried to start a language program to preserve the Lenape tongue. He is, however, conveniently out of the way so Bobbie can sleepwalk into a mortgage-debt hole while Jane rises at Lehman, approving loans that get rolled into tranches in collateralized debt obligations (CDO). More love is lavished on finance jargon than emotional back story. 

Rainbow Dickerson, Sheila Tousey, Jeffrey King, David Kelly and Joe Tapper in Manahatta at The Public Theater. Joan Marcus

Am I nitpicking? Unless we find these characters dimensional and surprising and see them moving through a world that is recognizably ours, they sound like sock puppets for a playwright dazzled by pattern but not humanity. At least when Nagle switches to scenes in the 17th century, we imaginatively follow her into a pastoral realm of Native Americans amused and puzzled—and finally appalled—by the habits of the white men among them. These exotic interlopers include Peter Minuit (Jeffrey King), a lumbering, gimlet-eyed thug who pushes brandy on the locals and makes O-face when he snaffles up the land for trinkets. When the Dutch begin shooting and expelling the Lenape, the rapid cutting between distant past and near-present almost turns the horror of the bloodshed into a device bordering on bathos. 

Such split-screen dramaturgy ends up diminishing characters and their choices, even the villains. These people don’t seem to inhabit real lives; how are they supposed to inhabit history? If only Nagle had assigned eras to individual acts, or attempted something epic yet focused, as Nathan Alan Davis recently did with The Refuge Plays. So much story and trauma crammed into 105 intermission-free minutes does these weighty subjects a disservice. Indeed, the parallel timeline conceit would probably work best as a novel, where alternating chapters and a narrative filter could soften thematic signposting across 300-plus pages. Jarring jumps in time and location start to take on an episodic, soap-opera quality, as Jane commutes repeatedly from New York to Oklahoma to absorb more guilt from the family and push the plot along. 

You can’t fault the likable and dedicated cast, double cast in the two centuries. As Jane and the Euro-curious Lenape woman Le-le-wa’-you, Frances has a fresh vibrancy I hope to see again. Marcelo Martińez Garciá’s darkish, mirrored sets dissolve borders between boardroom and meadow in deft ways, while Lux Haac’s costumes begin in discrete periods, then slowly, nightmarishly merge, until she fuses a Brooks Brothers double-breasted with a European doublet. Given all the tonal and temporal shifts that yank us from American dramedy to Arcadian tragedy, director Laurie Woolery is at pains to impose a stylistic middle ground; she keeps it pacey. 

If our culture were fearless and thriving, we’d have more plays like Manahatta—which is to say, ones better written than it. We’d also have more big-budget movies like Killers of the Flower Moon (but made by Native filmmakers) and more series like Reservation Dogs. Not to mention more Native theater critics. The play disappoints because it could have dug deeper, told us something research materials don’t or can’t. May it inspire other, beginning writers. Anyone can scribble a moral; mapping a journey to the revelation is hard. 

Buy Tickets Here 

Review: An Earnest Yet Awkward Land Acknowledgement for ‘Manahatta’