New Georges takes Thanksgiving dinner where it’s never been before.
This is not a play for the casual theatergoer.
At its root, the premise of A Beautiful Day in November on the Banks of the Greatest of the Great Lakes is simple. It's Thanksgiving Day, and three sisters are preparing dinner for their host of children, grandchildren and elderly parents. To emphasize the degree of chaos that this effort entails, a pair of radio sportscasters perch in a booth above the stage and provide commentary on the assembly of the table, cooking of the turkey and more. But so much more is at play here.
There are no props, and a cast of only ten actors play a family clan of more than double that size. The scenes all take place on a stage that resembles a school gymnasium, and the actors move through gestures that are sometimes realistic but more often abstract, in the style of physical theater, which leaves the audience dependent on the narration of announcers "@" and "#" to understand the action. The style is disconcerting at first, but really draws attention to the entertaining narration of the two commentators.
That central conceit of sportscaster narration provides most of the humor in the piece, and fortunately never gets old--even if they never quite manage to decide what sport we are playing. Both # (Ben Williams) and @ (Hubert Point-DuJour)'s personalities and the characters they describe continue to develop throughout the play as a result of the commentary, and the action is completely unpredictable. The first "quarter" or so of the piece is a bit slow, but once the whole family is present, a lively, dynamic rhythm emerges.
Before long, the whirlwind of family members settles and a few crucial players emerge, bringing a greater energy and investment to their roles. Host Cheesecake (Brooke Ishibashi) puts on a brave face as she tries to make the dinner perfect for her overwhelming family, but slowly crumbles beneath the onslaught of troubles. Her mother Snapdragon (Mia Katigbak) is a constant source of entertainment as she critiques mercilessly and plays favorites with her daughters, while eternal screw-up Gumbo (Kristine Haruna Lee) brings a rare sensitivity and vulnerability to this rapid-pace adventure.
As soon as you finally get comfortable with the off-beat storytelling of A Beautiful Day, of course, everything breaks down, and the play reaches a whole new level of absurdism. There isn't much to say about the ending other than that you need to see it to believe it, and you will not get those images out of your mind for quite a while. Whether that's a good thing, I leave up to you.
New Georges and Women's Project Theater are both organizations dedicated to telling stories by and about women, but in this case what that means is telling a fundamental story about family. Playwright Kate Benson has transformed one commonplace occasion into an immensely theatrical work that tears down everything you thought you knew about your annual Thanksgiving dinner. If nothing else, it's a play that will keep you guessing long after you leave.
A Beautiful Day in November on the Banks of the Greatest of the Great Lakes plays at City Center Stage II through February 7.
This article was previously published on CHARGED.fm.