Pay close attention to the opening scene of JC Lee’s Relevance, a moderately interesting play being given a dynamic performance by the MCC at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. It’s set at an MLA-type academic conference—the American Conference for Letters and Culture—and pits two celebrity feminist writers against each other. One is Theresa Hanneck (Jane Houdyshell, The Humans), a raging, silver-haired, white lioness of the Susan Faludi generation; the other is Msemaji Ukweli (Pascale Armand, Eclipsed), a young, ambitious, black woman clawing her way into the limelight.
Their conversation, which is being streamed live, is moderated by a youthful professor named Kelly Taylor (Molly Camp), in awe of both discussants. While struggling to keep the discourse civil, she can’t refrain from noting the activity it’s generating on social media, especially Twitter, where Theresa is being pounded. Unwisely, one might think, Theresa dismisses such platforms (except when it suits her purposes to refer to Reddit or BuzzFeed) while Msemaji takes pride in her considerable following. She obviously owes it a significant part in her success.
|Jane Houdyshell, Pascale Armand. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
Msemaji seeks diversity in the movement in contrast to the diversity-deprived predecessors she accuses of “righteous victimhood.” The discussion, however, although intended to highlight the differing positions of old-school vs. new-school feminism, remains largely unfocused, overshadowed by faux-academic dialogue and emotional fisticuffs.
|Pascale Armand, Richard Masur. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
This is particularly evident when Theresa, there to receive a lifetime achievement award and fighting to maintain her relevance, bulldozes her way through the conversation. She thereby puts Msemaji, who has been awarded a substantial monetary award by the institution—on edge with a hostility that barely gives the younger woman a chance to respond.
|Richard Masur, Jane Houdyshell. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
What follows, in scenes set at the conference hotel’s bar, Theresa’s room, and on the debate platform, details Theresa’s jealous anger at the rising young star whose popularity threatens to throw shade on foundational feminists like herself.
Theresa’s companion at the event is her avuncular literary agent, David (Richard Masur, Lucky Guy), her onetime lover, whose equanimity in supporting Msemaji allows Theresa to vent her spleen. You see, she’s learned things about Msemaji’s background that cast doubt on the authenticity of her narrative about being the product of an impoverished upbringing and the victim of rape.
|Molly Camp, Jane Houdyshell, Pascale Armand. Photo: Jane Marcus.|
As they say of politics, the feminist issues here are local, focused on the classic conflict between the veteran refusing to go gentle into that good night and the newcomer, who showers her distinguished predecessor with praise while subtly undercutting her authority. Both women are shown in an unflattering light but one nonetheless will come out on top.
Playwright Lee, though, drives the play’s intermissionless 90 minutes with too much reliance on conventional plot points regarding personal secrets that, given today’s instant news cycle, you’d think everybody and her sister would be privy to. Theresa’s suspicion of David’s possible sexual interest in Msemaji is another familiar ploy in this dramatic cat fight. Lee knows how to stir the dramatic pot to create vigorously vitriolic dialogue but his situations and characters too often seem forced and inorganic.
Liesl Tommy’s (Eclipsed) spirited direction keeps the pot bubbling with intense, rapid-fire confrontations but her staging has a rhetorical quality that makes even the most intimate discussions seem like debates. These characters don’t have to be pontificating on a public platform to deliver their lines in full voice while facing the audience, as if needing to convince us of their points of view. The dialogue also smacks of self-conscious artificiality; even “public intellectuals” sometimes speak like ordinary people, avoiding such locutions as “that which dehumanizes,” “that which is tangible,” “that which oppresses you,” and the like.
|Jane Houdyshell, Molly Camp. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
None of the characters has a third dimension but Houdyshell provides a formidable presence as the Valkyrie-like Theresa, although, sadly, she stumbled frequently over her words the night I went. Armand combines beauty and self-righteous confidence as Msemaji, while Camp pushes Molly’s comic bewilderment too far. Masur, white-bearded, his hair pulled back in a bun, his sport jacket and jeans with rolled cuffs underlying his liberal hipness, is likable as the play’s down-to-earth raisonneur who, for all his apparent equanimity, has his own secret agenda.
|Pascale Armand. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
Clint Ramos’s attractive set uses a revolve to bring each scene—only the bar being less than instantly identifiable—quickly into view, Jiyoun Chang’s lighting effectively enhances the atmosphere, and Jeannette Oi-Suk Yew’s projections, especially those of rapidly accumulating Twitter comments, are perfectly coordinated with the action. Finally, Jacob A. Climer's costumes are all character-appropriate.
Relevance is generally entertaining but, like Theresa, it simply never lives up to its title.
Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher St., NYC
Through March 11
"What Did the Folks Next to Me Think"
There was only one other person in my five-seat row besides me and my plus-one. A woman in her thirties, she declined to offer a grade but said she liked the show a lot.