Theater review by Melissa Rose Bernardo
All the Natalie Portmans has a good gimmick at its core. Whenever the play’s heroine, 16-year-old Keyonna (Kara Young), is lonely or distressed, her imaginary best friend, Natalie Portman (Elise Kibler)—actress, activist, Harvard alum—magically appears in costumes from her most famous films: the feathered tutu from Black Swan, the intergalactic warrior gear from the Star Wars prequels. “She the best in the game right now,” Keyonna tells her older brother (Joshua Boone) as she tapes Cosmopolitan pics of Portman to her dream board alongside photos of Julia Roberts and some token shots of Gwyneth Paltrow. “Hollywood is full of beautiful, talented women, Sam. And I see that. I honor it. And someday I’mma make mad money exploiting the hell out of it. Natalie is my ticket.”
The rest of C.A. Johnson’s play, unfortunately, is awash in Hollywood-style clichés. Keyonna is smart as hell but skips AP calculus “ ’cause it’s easy.” (Between this play, Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven and The New Englanders, Young is quickly cornering the market on brash, brainy teenagers.) Sam is trying to be both brother and father to her since their dad died; their alcoholic mom (an excellent Montego Glover) disappears for days at a time, leaving her kids to scrounge for food and rent money. And when she is there, she’s by turns disinterested and demeaning, referring to the lesbian Keyonna as her “ass-backwards daughter.” Johnson puts a twist on the love-triangle trope—Keyonna and Sam are both into the same girl, 17-year-old Chantel (Renika Williams)—but even that falls flat; standing together, talking about Love and Basketball, Young and Williams seem more like sisters than young women on the brink of romance.
One mystery remains at the end of the play. Why Natalie Portman? Sure, she makes a beautifully bonkers ballerina. (Never mind that Black Swan was released in 2010 and this show is set in 2009.) Or perhaps it’s the Star Wars legacy: As silver-screen role models go, you can’t do much better than a badass queen turned senator. And All the Natalie Portmans is certainly a very catchy title. If only the play itself seemed more than a collection of Hollywood clippings.
MCC Theater (Off Broadway). By C.A. Johnson. Directed by Kate Whoriskey. With Kara Young, Joshua Boone, Montego Glover. Running time: 2hrs 10mins. One intermission.