JC Lee’s Relevance, newly premiered by Manhattan Class Company at the Lucille Lortel Theater, should probably be viewed as a work in progress rather than a finished play. The press performances were postponed a week, and the press rep quietly warned reviewers on their way in that up-to-the-minute rewrites might require the actors to be “on book” for certain scenes — a warning confirmed in performance by a larger-than-usual number of fluffed lines. Clearly, those involved have a bit of uncertainty about what Relevance should say and exactly how to say it.
That’s understandable, since Relevance derives its considerable interest — and its relevance, which is also considerable — from current issues that are touchy almost to the point of explosiveness. Within its taut structure, its four characters — two writers, an academic, and a literary agent — engage in an increasingly heated debate about the validity of their work and the motives behind it, a debate that veers from the personal to the abstract as wildly as a runaway train. We’re not surprised when someone gets thrown off.
Lee’s setting is the annual conference of an (apparently) feminist literary organization, at which the young writer of a new best-seller, Msemaji (Pascale Armand), is to receive the group’s hefty cash prize, the “Angelou Grant,” while one of literary feminism’s reigning icons, Theresa (Jane Houdyshell), will deliver the keynote address and accept the organization’s “Alcott Award” for Lifetime Achievement. (The events of the conference, we’re told, are followable on Twitter under the daintily retro hashtag #litladies.) The opening scene, a public “dialogue” between the two authors, moderated perkily by Kelly (Molly Camp), one of the conference’s organizers, makes clear that there’s no love lost between the reigning and the rising star, though the latter at least goes through the motions of showing respect. The former, for her part, weighs in sententiously on the younger generation’s shortcomings, while cutting off Msemaji’s attempts to speak to boot.
A subsequent scene between Theresa and David (Richard Masur), her longtime agent and onetime lover, reveals some of the sources of Theresa’s hostility. She believes that Msemaji’s super-best-seller, Grace and Virtue, is specious, and the author herself “a fake,” a privileged rich girl who has changed her name and concealed her comfortable origins to claim solidarity with women not so privileged. Theresa asserts that her own breakthrough novel, The Fired Veil, was, in contrast, a more truthful matter. (It’s unclear whether Grace and Virtue, which apparently deals with, among other things, the experience of being raped at a fraternity party, is a memoir or a novel, a vagueness that doesn’t help Lee’s narrative stay lucid.) In a subsequent scene, Msemaji will offer an analysis of The Fired Veil that, while still couched in terms of respectful praise, will convey an equally negative view of Theresa’s implied message.
Clearly, a complex web of motives is building up on each side, and each successive scene, supplying more information, only makes the web seem that much more tangled. Lee shows us, compassionately, that history has dealt Theresa, for all her strength and high principles, a trickier hand, making her feel compelled, in effect, to defend a static position in a changing world: She is white, older, and stung by the understandable envy of a former big name for this year’s hot young literary celeb. In the private conversations the four share in various combinations, imputations of racism are for the most part gingerly avoided, but the possibility that it has a share in both women’s dislike, and particularly in Theresa’s, hovers always just below the script’s crackling surface.
Structurally, Relevance has a surprising amount in common with Sarah Burgess’s Kings, which opened a week earlier at the Public Theater: A taut situation, four characters, a generational rivalry between an established figure and a newcomer, a secondary character who switches sides. But Kings deals with the political arena, where issues are, at least to some extent, clear-cut. Relevance tackles questions we can’t measure — the literary quality and degree of truth in these imaginary writers’ books — so that it has the Henry Jamesian advantage of tempting us to speculate about what intentions really lie behind their words. In this shadowy area, Lee’s playwriting can be strikingly effective: The grant-acceptance speech in which Msemaji combines humble gratitude with fierce self-assertiveness, and drapes Theresa’s work in compliments that all seem to contain hidden knife blades, is a particularly elegant piece of workmanship. Lee also handles skillfully the two secondary characters, Kelly and David, each of whom has divided loyalties as well as a personal motive, more easily discerned than those of the two writers.
What Lee hasn’t found yet is a way to take his play to a higher plane of meaning. The climactic scene, in which Theresa essentially throws away her lifetime-achievement acceptance speech and uses the occasion as an attempt to discredit Msemaji — not realizing that she’s wrecking herself in the process — is awkward and one-dimensional. It reiterates arguments we’ve already heard, reducing a conflict we’ve come to regard as multilayered and significant to a simple catfight. Among other flaws, it makes Theresa seem so hidebound and dogmatic, as well as petty, that you might wonder how she acquired the brilliant reputation to which everyone else onstage has been paying tribute since the opening scene. Nor does it particularly square with the moving epilogue in which a tentative effort at understanding leads to no reconciliation.
In these late scenes, Lee’s struggle with his material is manifest. But if he hasn’t quite finished his work, he has emphatically demonstrated a genuine ability that justifies encouraging him to press on. Relevance wasn’t going to be an easy play to bring to fruition: Its substance is too densely piled, its themes too rich with potential controversy, for it to be sorted out with any facile tidiness. Our world is not a tidy place. That Lee’s play has been hurried onstage when it probably could have used another draft only underscores its claims to currency.
Despite the hurry, director Liesl Tommy has done extremely well with her actors. Houdyshell, one of those maddeningly perfect artists who can apparently summon up any feeling instantly without blinking an eye, is totally at home here even with the most darkly negative material. Armand pours out brilliant charm and indignant fervor with equal ease. Camp carefully keeps her equivocal role from sliding into caricature. And Masur, whom I have seen too often stuck in stock-avuncular or stock-menacing characters, gets a strongly written one here, and repays the favor by handling it beautifully, with a Chekhovian delicacy of feeling. Whatever Relevance’s failings, the opportunities it provides its cast make it a notable event.