It might sound unenlightened to call Relevance a catfight between two feminists. Jayne Houdyshell and Pascale Armand, after all, are portraying characters explicitly identified as “public intellectuals” in JC Lee’s play – one as Theresa, a long-famous white feminist author, the other as Msemaji, a younger, up-and-coming black feminist author.
They are sharing the stage at the annual American Conference for Letters and Culture (a made-up institution), when they begin to disagree. Their differences are philosophical, generational; over ideas.
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At least, that apparently is what we’re supposed to think during Relevance, an MCC production running Off-Broadway at the Lucille Lortel Theater. But there are two problems with this picture. First, the substance of their disagreements is so vague and abstract as to make it difficult to figure out what the ideas are, much less to articulate them. Here’s the best I can do: Msemaji sees the members of the older generation as continuing to be defined by their oppression and their oppressors, when that’s no longer necessary. Theresa believes it’s still necessary to speak out against oppression.
Second, and more to the point, it’s evident immediately that they’re too competitive to be more than minimally cordial to one other; it becomes clear quickly that they dislike each other (they each think the other a self-serving careerist); and soon their interaction turns personal and nasty, with backbiting, bickering, name-calling, attempted sabotage, and eventually something of a physical altercation — “Take your hands off me right now!”
So, yes, a catfight seems an accurate if dumbfounding summation of Relevance, and if it would be way too glib to call the playwright a sexist pig, Lee has created a remarkably unsympathetic portrait of two feminists – and therefore, intentionally or not, of feminism.
Luckily for the playwright, director Liesl Tommy has assembled a terrific cast and a fine design team. I literally have never seen Jayne Houdyshell give a bad performance, even in very bad plays. She’s been in some very good ones lately. She portrayed a lower middle class mother in The Humans, for which she won her first Tony Award after 40 years as a working New York actor, and followed that up with a 19th century servant in A Doll’s House, Part 2. Here, with a slight shift of posture (and helped by Clint Ramos’ costumes) she offers a compelling contrast to her most recent roles, persuasively inhabiting Dr. Theresa Hanneck, a commanding and combative scholar and activist who has been in the public eye for decades. The actress even manages to keep her dignity intact while the character loses hers — in her meek telephone conversations with her provincial mother back in her home state of South Dakota; and in her complicated interaction with her agent David (the always reliable Richard Masur), with whom she had a longtime affair, and for whom we come to believe she still pines. Although Theresa claims to be on the attack against Msemaji because she believes her a fraud, she seems more motivated by jealousy, and fear of being upstaged and losing her relevance. This is a character who sees accusations of “hysteria” as perniciously sexist (the word hysteria coming from the Greek word for uterus), yet it’s the right word to describe some of her dealings with Msemaji.
Pascale Armand, who was nominated for a Tony for her performance in Eclipsed, does an impressive job of navigating the role of Msemaji Ukweli, who is no more likeable and no less catty than Theresa, although she is more stealthy in her counterattacks. She is also indeed somewhat of a fraud; she changed her name from Tiffany Hall, and attempted to hide her privileged schooling to advance her career. Earnest, firm, articulate and intelligent, Msemaji manages to blame her actions on the white power structure. She says to David:
“I’m not a fraud for knowing what it took to get here, to win, to be the woman people look to for what comes next. The opportunity …does not happen without indulging the white predisposition for black pain. It’s the toll you demand for our success because it confirms both your superiority and our worth should we overcome it. I am not a fraud for presenting a version of that pain for consumption while protecting what is sacred in me.”
Armand’s delivery is so expert that it’s almost persuasive, and certainly thought-provoking.
Although the #MeToo movement and the election of Trump have nudged the issue out of the spotlight, there is probably a play to be written about the generation gap among feminists (and women in general), which was given its clearest expression during the 2016 presidential campaign, when former secretary of state Madeleine Albright introduced Hillary Clinton by saying: “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” But JC Lee, a respected playwright who has also been a writer for the HBO series “Looking” and “Girls,” doesn’t seem all that interested in writing a play about the generation gap. He seems more passionate about the evils of social media, which takes up a goodly chunk of Relevance, although there’s nothing especially new or insightful about it.
At one point, David delivers a monologue about being a fan of the New York Knicks during its 45-year (and counting) losing streak. It may say something that this quintessential guy riff is the funniest moment in the play (it has little competition for that), and one of the most engaging, but even the character whom he was addressing didn’t understand its relevance.
Relevance is on stage at the Lucille Lortel Theater (121 Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, New York, N.Y. 10014) through March 11, 2018
Tickets and details
Relevance by J.C. Lee . Directed by Liesl Tommy. Featuring Pascale Armond, Molly Camp, Jayne Houdyshell and Richard Masur. Set design by Clint Ramos, costume design by Jacob A. Climer, lighting design by Jiyoun (Jiji) Chang, sound design by Broken Chord, projection design by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew. Produced by MCC Theater . Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell