Directed by Shelley Butler
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
Catherine Trieschmann’s new play “The Most Deserving” is a delicious and raucous mélange of six characters facing their own and others’ sexism, racism, and homophobia as they struggle to bestow a twenty thousand dollar award to a deserving local visual artist. “This artist,” Jolene Atkinson (Veanne Cox) informs her Arts Council, “must have lived in Ellis County for five years. He must demonstrate both artistic excellence and financial need and should preferably be an underrepresented American voice.”
The recipient of this grant, the visual artist most deserving, is the subject of the play currently running at the Women’s Project Theatre at New York City Center Stage II. It is revealed through the playwright’s skilled exploration of point of view and motivation: each character understands the grant from her or his specific viewpoint and their vote is mired in layers of motivation which, as these layers are exposed, provide the entertaining and very funny story lines of Ms. Trieschmann’s quite brilliant script. Add inventive direction by Shelley Butler and impeccable performances by the ensemble cast and the Women’s Project Theatre scores a hit in this final offering of its 2013/2014 Season.
Jolene wants the award to go to Rick Duffy and her choice is politically motivated – Rick’s father Bob is Chairman of the City Council which approves funding for the Arts Council. Council member Dwayne Dean (Adam Lefevre) wants to “throw his hat in the ring” with his Vice President Portrait Series and recuse himself from the voting process. Newcomer to the Council Liz Chang (Jennifer Lim) wants the Council to extend the deadline to include Everett Whiteside (Ray Anthony Thomas) who – as an African American – would be the only candidate to authentically meet all the Award’s criteria. Liz’s motivation? She’s writing a book about Everett which hopefully will get her out of rural Kansas and into a better teaching position. Up for grabs are the votes of Jolene’s husband Ted (Daniel Pearce) and the Award’s matching-grant donor the recently-widowed Edie Kelch (Kristin Griffith).
As Jolene and Liz scramble to win over Ted and Edie, “The Most Deserving” builds to a fevered pitch until the last frenzied scene brings the audience to “rolling-over-on-the-floor” hysteria. Ms. Trieschmann’s play is one of the funniest to appear Off-Broadway in a very long time. And it is one of the best written plays in the recent past. Although it would be a spoiler to expose just how the final scene plays out and to disclose whether or not Everett get the Award, it is important to share some of the most humorous dialogue and scenes.
One of the funniest scenes in “The Most Deserving” involves Dwayne’s explanation of why he is “a minority.” During two three-ways with his wife – one with another man – Dwayne discovers he is sexually attracted to men and proudly admits to being “one-sixteenth homosexual male.” In another scene, the audience learns Ted is having an affair with Liz to “spite his wife.” And in another scene, his wife Jolene purchases lingerie to snare her husband’s vote from Liz’s clutches. One cannot make up this stuff which the playwright has successfully made up with amazing craft. Here is some dialogue. The whole enterprise borders on dining room farce without the dining room.
As an African American, Everett meets the qualifications of the Award; however, during his interview with the Arts Council, he inadvertently reveals his own deep racism:
EVERETT: The Masons. They got Uncle Sam in their pocket.
JOLENE: They do?
LIZ: I could really use some tea, Everett?
EVERETT: And you know whose [sic] on top of them? The greedy muthafXXX running the whole shebang?
JOLENE: No, who?
EVERETT: The Jews.
And Edie exposes her own racism during a conversation with Jolene:
EDIE: Of course, Junior’s also having the worst luck at work. He’s selling office supplies at Maxwell’s, and do you know they only work on commission?
JOLENE: I didn’t know that.
EDIE: This economy is terribly hard on white men.
Despite her feelings of discrimination against whites, Edie is the consummate feminist – a fact confirmed in the following and even more profoundly in the closing scene in the Art Gallery:
EDIE: I married him just to spite Mother. She wouldn’t let me wear pants. It was 1963. All the girls wore pants. But no, she said, that’s not our way.
“The Most Deserving” is an important and complex play which uses humor to deal with a variety of important issues and needs to be seen to be fully appreciated and understood. The play celebrates our wholeness in our brokenness, our health in our state of disability, and our strength in our apparent weakness.