Manahatta – Review by Tom Holehan

Native American history gets “The Big Short” treatment at the Yale Repertory Theatre where the East Coast premiere of “Manahatta”, Mary Kathryn Nagle’s play about the Native American experience both past and present, is currently onstage. According to program notes, Nagle is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and most of the cast at Yale includes Native American actors.

Manahatta, is the Lanape Tribe word for Manhattan. The play is set during two different time periods, the early 17th century when the Lenape people had their land violently taken away by Dutch settlers, and during the looming mortgage crisis of 2008 on Wall Street, where Lenape member Jane Snake has just landed a lucrative job. The play comments on the treatment of the Indians in the past when Peter Minuit convinces the tribe to sell him the island of Manahatta and today where the rich only get richer while Jane’s impoverished family in Oklahoma is on the verge of losing their home.

“Manahatta” has a lot on its mind and there is no doubting the sincerity of Nagle as she attempts to explore the past while commenting on the present. The problem might be that dramatizing American finance for the stage just isn’t a terribly interesting topic. Adam McKay and Charles Randolf, the filmmakers of “The Big Short”, did manage to creatively explain American finance in that acclaimed 2015 movie, but film is a far different medium than theatre. There is little driving the narrative in “Manahatta” and its 110 minute running time (without intermission) rarely generates much suspense or interest. Despite the fluid direction of Laurie Woolery, who does wonders even while hampered by an unwieldy set (more about that later), the play also isn’t helped by actors, some playing two roles, who are competent without being truly engaging.

Designer Mark Holthusen frames the stage with a magnificent backdrop of projections that define the past, present and everything in between. Marian Sanchez’s scenic design, however, is a bit of a mess with a trio of molded plastic rock formations of various sizes that are utilized for seating or climbing depending on the period. An elegant long table center stage serves as a Wall Street CEO’s desk, Mama Snake’s modest kitchen table and, I think, another rock to be climbed upon. The spaces are not well defined.
There have been countless stories about Native American life revealed in books and motion pictures. Tommy Orange’s current bestseller, “There There”, comes to mind. I cannot recall, however, any that have successfully been presented in the theatre. Let’s hope the Native American experience on stage doesn’t begin and end with “Manahatta”.

“Manahatta” continues at the Yale Repertory Theatre through February 15. For ticket reservations or further information call: 203.432.1234 or visit: www.yalerep.org.

Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor and resident critic of WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

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