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Theater review by Regina Robbins
JC Lee’s Relevance takes place at a scholarly gathering, but its concerns aren’t merely academic. White feminist writer Theresa (the splendid Jayne Houdyshell) is being honored for a lifetime of work on the front lines of liberal thought, but a prickly exchange during a panel discussion puts her on the defensive instead of basking in the approval of her peers. Msemaji (Pascale Armand), a young woman of color with a popular memoir and a large Twitter following, challenges Theresa’s long-cherished ideas about collective struggle and female unity. Theresa does not take kindly to this seeming dismissal of her legacy, and sets out to take the rookie down a few pegs. But the rules of the game have changed, for better or worse or both: Even the Ivory Tower can be infiltrated, or seduced, by Instagram.
Like an All About Eve for the 21st century, Relevance stages a power struggle between ambitious women of different generations, with racial tension and internet culture added to the mix. The cast—which also includes Richard Masur and Molly Camp—is solid, and director Liesl Tommy does an impressive job of keeping the action lively even when the dialogue spins into highly intellectual territory, and Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew's stunning projections underscore the role of social media in driving a wedge between the old guard and the new. Fasten your seat belts: It’s going to be a bumpy conference.
Lucille Lortel Theatre (Off Broadway). By JC Lee. Directed by Liesl Tommy. With Jayne Houdyshell, Pascale Armand. Running time: 1hr 40mins. No intermission.