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Review: An Irrelevant Play About ‘Relevance’

Relevance

By Jil Picariello, Theater Editor, February 26, 2018

In Relevance, the deeply underwritten new play by JC Lee, Jayne Houdyshell assays a role usually played by a man: an arrogant, aging lion, obliviously unaware of how he presents himself in public and private.

Houdyshell, usually so layered and wise in her portrayals, falls short here. She not only delivers a one-note performance in which the few shifts in tone and response come across as untethered to any recognizable human behavior, she also flubs line after line, resorting to actually reading from paper. The reading is masked by the scene—she’s speaking at a conference, behind a podium—but the fact that she has to occasionally search through the papers before her is deeply unsettling.

As a renowned feminist academic, author, and “public intellectual” (who knew such a thing existed outside of France?), Houdyshell’s Theresa is facing (for the first time, it seems) a challenge from an up-and-coming young African-American writer played by Pascal Armand, who seems more self-assured in her (equally underwritten) role. The two match minds at an academic conference in the opening scene, and there are titillating moments of back-and-forth argument, most of it shut down by Houdyshell’s steamroller domination of the “dialogue.” But those few moments of tension are all the script has to offer, and it’s obvious from the first scene (spoiler alert), that the veteran is going to be going down in flames sometime soon. All we have to do is sit and wait, and wait, and wait. It’s less than two hours long, but those two hours pass slowly.

Nothing adds up to anything, least of all anything dramatic. For all the talk (and there’s a lot of it), I was never really clear about their differing points of view, what they had authored, and why they were notables. It’s so obscured by academic jargon and buzzwords that finding a point felt like feeling your way through fog. We all know supposedly smart people can do very stupid things (Anthony Weiner anyone? Dominique Strauss-Kahn? Freakin’ Bill Clinton??). But a writer has a responsibility to make those things character based and believable to the audience. The foolish things Theresa says and does are not. If I—a person as far from “public intellectual” status as I am from the moon—know certain things should not be said and done; Theresa should know it too. Although there are a couple of gasps when the final moments come, the drama in this drama is rare. All it proves is that women can be just as blithely un-self-aware and arrogant as men. No surprise there.

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Relevance presented by MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortel Theater (121 Christopher Street). Running time: 1 hour and 40 minutes with no intermission, performances through March 11, 2018. Written by JC Lee. Directed by Liesl Tommy; 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. Cast: Pascale Armand, Molly Camp, Jayne Houdyshell, and Richard Masur.

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Cover: (l. to r.) Jayne Houdyshell and Pascale Armand in ‘Relevance;’ photo: Joan Marcus.


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