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A CurtainUp Review

It's obvious. I know people think sometimes I'm too blunt or too reductive, but nuance has a way of obscuring the truth. — Theresa.
Jane Houdyshell(Photo: Joan Marcus)
In JC Lee's drama we get a heaping helping of academic babble — oops...intellectual discourse — on the subject of how old school feminism is being impacted by its inevitable upgrade and revitalizing with new school MeToo-ism. Two terrific actors — Jayne Houdyshell and Pascale Armand— play the adversaries who battle it out for dominance and recognition of their opposing positions at a live-streamed debate being presented by the American Conference for Letters and Culture.

Houdyshell plays Theresa Hanneck a respected author and outspoken defender of traditional values and Armand plays Msemaji Ukweli a generation younger African-American woman whose recent book highlighting feminism through a more racially pointed and gender-sensitive perspective has created a stir among women who predominantly use social media to garner information and express their views.

The body of the play, directed with finesse by Liesl Tommy, primarily consists of confrontations that tend toward the pedantic as much as they do toward the patronizing from both women. But a caring corner of the play can also be found in the testy and tentative relationship that exists between Hanneck and David (Richard Masur) her long-time and devoted agent who's also her former, previously and still married lover. Mainly seen as a referee for the dizzyingly wordy exchanges between Hanneck and Ukweli is Kelly (good performance by Molly Camp) the program's thirty-something generally effusive but often nonplussed moderator.

The play begins funnily enough with the first live-streamed debate as we see how Hanneck assumes she has seniority as a renowned observer of the woman's movement. But she grows increasingly agitated by Ukweli's judgmental and condescending remarks. Hanneck's impatience and ire grow to the extent that she repeatedly starts cutting the stunned Ukweli off in midsentence.

The debate gets nasty fast as it also goes viral flaring up the twitter feed fueled by Ukweli's ardent supporters. The bombardment of negative twitter toward Hanneck prompts her to go on the offensive.

Whether Houdyshell is playing offensive or defensive for her character she only gives the audience more reason to appreciate the various levels of emotional and dramatic levels she deploys with bracing assurance. It doesn't take much time for Hanneck to dredge up enough of Ukweli's past to see that she has changed her birth name to Ukweli which means "truth seeker" in Swahili and, among other things, did not grow up in poverty.

But if Hanneck's agenda is initially well-meaning, her ultimate goal to discredit Ukweli is not. But does this black woman's re-aligned perspective and her resistance to what she calls Hanneck's dated platform of "righteous victimhood" carry enough dramatic weight to sustain our interest? Not really.

Also in question is whether she have a sturdy enough shield to protect herself against Hanneck and the vicious attack on her credibility? This comes at the final debate at the same conference during which Hanneck is to be presented with a prestigious award. The play's climactic moments occur as Hanneck's attempt to expose what she sees as Ukweli's fraudulent facade backfires. Armand is terrific as the empowered spokesperson for a new generation of women activists who both use and abuse social media.

Unfortunately, hardly any of the feminist blather is either enlightening or incendiary enough to warrant the amount of time allotted to it by the playwright. There is enough relief from it, however, to enjoy the playful and touchingly bittersweet negotiations that occur between Hanneck and David. As the protective agent, Masur earns our empathy with an ingratiating performance, even as he changes his professional alliance.

It isn't really clear if Relevance answers the question as to whether the unleashed reach of social media can serve equally as both the ally and the foe of traditional progressive activism. But there is no question that this debate could not have been better served than it is by Houdyshell and Armand.

Designer Clint Ramos does well by changing the setting from a traditional hotel room to the conference room with its living wall of progressive social-media projections by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew

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Relevance by JC Lee
Directed by Liesl Tommy
Cast: Jane Houdyshell (Theresa Hanneck), Pascale Armand (Msemaji Ukweli), Molly Camp (Kelly), and Richard Masur (David).
Scenic design by Clint Ramos
Costume design by Jacob A. Climer
Lighting design by Jiyoun Chang
Sound design by Broken Chord
Projection design by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew
Stage Manager: Alex H. Hajjar
Running Time: 90 minutes no intermission
MCC at Lucille Lortel Theater
From 2/01/18; opening 2/20/18; closing 3/11/18.
Reviewed by Simon Saltzman 2/24/18

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