By Samuel L. Leiter
It’s too soon to suggest a trend but All the Natalie Portmans, the MCC’s production of C.A. Johnson’s bumpily engaging, African-American, coming-of-age drama, is the second play this season—the first was Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson—to use a movie star’s name in its title. Just as in the first example, someone who more or less resembles a famous actor appears in the plot. But while Luke Wilson himself is actually presumed present, Natalie Portman is a figment of someone’s imagination.
The person who conjures her up whenever she’s under stress is 16-year-old, high school girl Keyonna, a self-professed lesbian, spiritedly portrayed by the dynamic Kara Young (Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven). Keyonna is the daughter of the alcoholic Ovetta (Montego Glover, Memphis), a hotel maid, and sister of the 18-year-old dropout, Samuel (Joshua Boone, Holler If Ya Hear Me).
It’s 2009, the family, living in Northeast Washington, D.C., is skidding toward economic oblivion following the death of the paterfamilias, and, in one of the most common melodramatic tropes, the heard but unseen upstairs landlord, Epps (Raphael Peacock), is loudly demanding the rent.
Samuel, who—though underage—works at a bar, gets in trouble with his boss, loses his job, and ends up in detention. Ovetta, who has a tendency to vanish for days at a time, endangers everyone’s welfare when she blows her hard earned cash at a casino.
Keyonna, a high-achieving student with aspirations of attending film school and becoming a screenwriter, escapes her problems by obsessing about female movie stars—mainly white ones. She even creates a collage of their pictures on a “dream board” that dominates the wall over the living room couch.
And Chantel (Renika Williams), Keyonna’s best friend, sexually involved with Samuel while also attracted to Keyonna, struggles to provide the kind of outsider’s support more likely to be rejected than accepted. Small as the dramatis personae is, each member bears a heavy burden.
Set in Donyale Werle’s naturalistically detailed living room/kitchen set, efficiently lit by Stacey Derosier, the play mostly overcomes its familiar accumulation of dysfunctional domestic issues through biting, occasionally funny, dialogue, rich characterizations, pointedly nuanced direction (by Kate Whoriskey), and consistently excellent acting.
To a degree, the incorporation of an actress playing Natalie Portman (Elyse Kibler, CSC’s Mies Julie) enlivens the show, especially since each entrance shows her costumed (by Jennifer Moeller; wigs by Cookie Jordan) for another Portman movie: The Black Swan, Where the Heart Is, Garden City, The Empire Strikes Back, etc. Then there’s the way her entrances have been contrived to make her appear from unexpected places.
But, aside from some amusing exchanges (including film shtick, like dueling with light sabers), their point wears thin during the too long (two hours and 10 minutes) running time. In fact, the mostly conventional interchanges between Keyonna and Natalie, as if the latter occupies the same plane of reality, might lead one to suspect Keyonna of incipient schizophrenia. And, let’s face it, plays with imaginary friends have been around long enough (think Harvey, for starters, or more recently, feeling. and The Giant Hoax, among others) to make them something of a cliché.
What makes your heart thump, however, are not the Portman scenes, more curiosities than dramatic necessities, but the ones between Keyonna and Ovetta, especially when the pair clash over maternal/filial responsibilities. This flawed mother fights to prove her love, regardless of what’s transpired, only for her daughter to deflect with such masked indifference that anyone who’s ever wrangled with a demanding but imperfect parent will cringe at the memory.
As the old song says, and as the deeply human characters in All the Natalie Portmans demonstrate, “You always hurt the one you love.” Hurtful as these people can be, it’s likely you’ll also end up loving them.
All the Natalie Portmans. Through March 29 at the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space (511 West 52nd Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues). Two hours, 10 minutes with one intermission. www.mcctheater.org
Photos: Daniel J. Vasquez