Review by Kathleen Campion

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

The intellectual playfulness of Relevance, which opened Sunday night at the Lortel, has a whisper of Stoppard about it, in that it is a play about ideas and words and their relevance — which could sound stuffy, but plays with enormous vitality.

Playwright JC Lee sparks easy laughter in the opening scenes, as she introduces Theresa Hanneck, the estimable Jayne Houdyshell, as a tough-as-old-boots arbiter of feminist thought.  On the stage of an academic conference, Theresa smothers remarks of her young interlocutor, the promising young writer Msemaji Ukweli (Pascale Armand), with a careless condescension, played for laughs.  The exchange goes viral when, Msemaji’s friend writes a scathing takeaway on Jezebel.  Immediately, the bots and trolls mobilize and  — whatever really happened —metamorphoses into a virtual battlefield.   At the opening of hostilities, Msemaji is well-armed and bulletproof, while Theresa seems to have brought a knife to a gunfight.

Msemaji is both beguiling and smug, with a hard sheen of youthful certainty.  You sit on her side of the room as she is talked over by the disdainful Theresa.  Then, you start to discover some chinks in her armor.  Her Swahili name is newly acquired.  Her trumpeted backstory of coming up on the mean streets includes a few incongruent posh pieces.  And, there may be issues around the rape that is the come-to-Jesus moment in her breakout book.

Lee  keeps us off balance.  For all the posturing and philosophizing, all the warfare of words, all the grabbing and gaining the upper rhetorical hand, the script is rich in incisive, intentional misunderstanding.

The divide between the women is artfully underscored when the young phenom tries to school Theresa  — a woman who may well have coined the phrase “Sisterhood is Powerful” — on the meaning of sisterhoodIn Msemaji”s universe, the term “sisterhood” is specific to, and for the exclusive use of, women of color.

Houdyshell inhabits Theresa.  From her first breath, she is completely the confident, angry feminist thinker she’s playing,  (I kept thinking I’d met her at rallies in the 70s.)  Though she blusters and roars, she still gives us flashes of vulnerability, followed immediately by rage, in one case, and capitulation, in another.  Once again Houdyshell gives us an entirely credible woman.

Actors don’t steal scenes from Jayne Houdyshell, but Richard Masur, who plays Theresa’s agent, walks up to that line time and again.  These two actors are a well-matched, polished pair.  Their characters have history and old wounds and ancient laughter.

Masur delivers his near monologue on the destructive nature of teams, with hilarious passion and complete authenticity.   He is the guy on the next barstool who’s been telling that story for all of his life and has polished the bright work to a mellow sheen.

Kelly  (Molly Camp) is everyone’s foil.  She is the apologist who must explain the bot-battle to her hero, Theresa — and ultimately, she must choose a side.

Director Liesl Tommy maintains a furious pace in the polemic scenes and a gentle pace in the Theresa-and-David exchanges.  She uses to advantage the natural imbalance between the old pros and the aspiring actors.  Using the in-house audience to fill out the audience in the story line is an old trick.  I can’t say why, but it works especially well here.  Lighting director Jiyoun Chang probably could explain.

Clint Ramos’s sets animate the Lortel’s modest space with a simple precision that delivers three to four discreet spaces and the scene changing is just long enough to serve as sorbet.  The visuals projected to demonstrate the trolling worked especially well. Set dressing kudos on the small stuff — the placard sized badge hung on event-director Kelly is one small example.

We had a noticeably New York theater audience the night I went.  Everyone kept up with the fast and facile script punctuated with a raft of local and political references.  Add to that, when the two stars entered, the audience did not applaud their celebrity, but rather attended to the characters they played.  Best of all, at the curtain call, the delighted audience did NOT jump to its feet for the requisite B&T ovation, but kept its seat to applaud with genuine appreciation.

Relevance —  By JC Lee; directed by Liesl Tommy

WITH: Pascale Armano (Msemaji), Molly Camp (Kelly), Jayne Houdyshell (Theresa), Richard Masur (David).

Designed by Clint Ramos; lighting by Jiyoun Chang; sound by Broken Chord; projection design by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew.  Presented by MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street, Manhattan.  Through March 11.  Running time 1 hour 45 minutes with no intermission.