Review: AN UNTITLED NEW PLAY BY JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE at City Theatre and THE THANKSGIVING PLAY at Arcade Comedy Theater Sing the Praises of the Dramaturge

Two shows. Two styles. Two stories. One unsung hero.

By: Dec. 13, 2021
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Review: AN UNTITLED NEW PLAY BY JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE at City Theatre and THE THANKSGIVING PLAY at Arcade Comedy Theater Sing the Praises of the Dramaturge Pop culture is full of paeans to the composer or the playwright; just this past fall, Andrew Garfield starred in Tick Tick... Boom! on Netflix as the young Jonathan Larson. But outside of insider tell-alls, there's not a lot of focus on the behind the scenes creatives of the theatrical world, especially the dramaturge. As a sometimes dramaturge myself, I know the position is misunderstood if it's understood at all: the shepherd of a new work, the dramaturge assists in the creative development of a piece by advising the author and the creative staff, doing research and providing insight and input on structure, tone and other aspects of the work in progress. You can imagine my surprise when I discovered that, one particular weekend, Pittsburgh was showing not one but TWO new plays about the role of the dramaturge in the theatrical process.

I don't recall if I've ever done a two-in-one review before, but this time it felt like the only way to really look at these two shows. They couldn't be more different, but they're ultimately circling the same question: what does it mean to "do good work, do good plays" as a lyric from An Untitled New Play by Justin Timberlake asks? Where is the line between art and commerce, activism and entertainment? Is every instinct a good one? Is entertainment without education or activism relevant? Is education or activism without entertainment palatable? Who gets to write, and what stories are they entitled to tell?

Matt Schatz's satirical musical (referred to hereafter as Untitled), for which he wrote book, music and lyrics, is a coproduction of City Theatre and Pittsburgh CLO, directed by Reginald L. Douglas and music directed by Douglas Levine. It's a tiny, intimate four-person show with a novel conceit: our heroine is Beth (Julianne Avolio), the tightly-wound dramaturge for a prestigious nonprofit theatre company. Beth is close to securing her passion project for the company, an issues drama set in Africa by reclusive activist playwright El Yamasaki Brooks (Lara Hayhurst). Unfortunately for her, the artistic director (Craig Macdonald) has set his sights on debuting a new show in development by a first time playwright... who also happens to be one of the most famous pop stars of the past three decades. Seeing this as a threat to her quest to change the world with art, Beth decides to turn activist herself, meddling behind the scenes to sabotage Timberlake's play and pull strings for El's. And then... things get complicated. As it turns out, Timberlake is a great playwright, and El isn't much of an editor of her own work. And then the terrorists get involved...

Despite- or perhaps because of- the deeply serious themes of privilege, institutional sexism and the relative power of art to actually change the world versus virtue-signaling, Schatz keeps his play as light and silly as it can be for the most part. This is a dark, absurdist showbiz comedy in the BoJack Horseman mold, particularly Craig Macdonald's massively narcissistic director, which he plays with infectious glee even as he becomes more and more toxic by the scene. Juliane Avolio makes for a deeply lovable main character, with a softness and passion that makes her sympathetic even as she grows into more of an antihero with every scene of meddling and sabotage. Her near nervous breakdown/rap solo, over a sampled chorus of her castmates' voices, is a highlight of the whole production. Lara Hayhurst, as the playwright, is full of surprises, as the character she plays gradually reveals nuances that go against the grain of her initial appearance. And of course, no musical in Pittsburgh is complete without Melessie Clark, who here plays avant-garde director Liz Cohen. Clark imbues this slightly kooky character with warmth, passion and take-no-shit attitude, ironically playing straight-man to the entire proceding while making Avolio's Beth question her own sexuality with her openly-bi affection. Schatz's score is smart, tuneful and tight: the four-piece band is tiny and the arrangements tend towards minimalism, but this just lets the densely-packed words shine.

Now travel with me across town, from the city's most prestigious new-works theatre to one of its smallest, scrappiest and hungriest: Arcade Comedy Theater. Here, in the storefront improv club turned unexpected theatrical success, a very different show is being staged on the very same theme. Larissa Fasthorse's The Thanksgiving Play is also about the power of dramaturgy and the validity of certain stories and certain perspectives. Given the way racism, genocide and propaganda feature heavily in FastHorse's play, it's a weightier piece than Untitled, but it's also a more overtly wacky show; it bears the stylistic pedigree of Tina Fey's television comedy style (though thankfully without her somewhat infamous tone-deafness on racial and indigenous issues).

Directed by Linda Haston, the play is a backstage comedy about two extremely West Coast White Liberal actors (Rachel Pfennigwerth and Matt Zierden) who have been hired to create and stage an educational Thanksgiving play for elementary schoolers. Pretentious Logan (Pfennigwerth) has even secured a grant to use a Native American actor (Evelyn Hernandez) in a leading role, and recruited a local teacher and history buff (Matt Henderson) to advise as well. But... Alicia the actress isn't native- she just has a tan and some intentionally misleading headshots. And Caden the teacher is a stagestruck, overenthusiastic nerd who has prewritten an impossibly long and dense Thanksgiving epic he is desperate to stage. No one is quite sure what story they should be telling, or are allowed to tell, and no one is quite sure who is in the driver's seat. Chaos ensues.

The comedy here is broader than across town at City Theatre: Rachel Pfennigwerth and Matt Zierden are fantastic as the buzzword-spouting, yoga-and-veganism-coopting, aggressively fake-woke artistes. Matt Henderson, eager as ever to play an enthusiastic outsider (his performance as Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night was a must-see), wins the audience over as much as he freaks them out with his hyperventilating starstruck Everyman. But Evelyn Hernandez steals the show with her portrayal of sexy airhead Alicia, who has knowingly embraced brainlessness and let it lead her to a Zen state. There's been a lot of deconstruction of the bimbo archetype in the last fifteen years (much of it by Tina Fey, who we mentioned above), and FastHorse doesn't so much deconstruct it as use it like a sledgehammer. Watching the genuinely simple Alicia try to tutor the neurotic Logan (Pfennigwerth) in the art of not thinking about anything creates moments of physical comedy that had the audience gasping with laughter.

Given how rare it is to see even one show about the way theatre is structured, seeing two on the same day felt like a blessing. (Not to insert myself too much here, but I spent 2020 and 2021 writing and composing a musical by myself, which is only now beginning to get off the ground.) Next time I see a show, I'll be thinking about the people whose job it was to fit the pieces together, and I hope you will too.


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