If you were a movie-obsessed 16-year-old circa 2009 facing major life challenges – dead father, alcoholic mother, life on the edge of poverty – you too might idolize Natalie Portman. The Israeli American movie star is known for playing young, resilient heroines trying to beat the odds. Portman outlasted killer cops in The Professional, an antifascist maniac in V for Vendetta, and three films of galactic cheese in George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels. So, when Keyonna (Kara Young) plasters a wall at home with pictures of Portman (and other stars) torn from the pages of magazines, it’s more than fangirling. It’s a matter of survival.
Keyonna is also gay and an aspiring screenwriter, so her Portman obsession includes a crush and professional ambition. It’s so intense, the celebrity actually materializes onstage, a friendly figment embodied with pert, appealing swagger by Elise Kibler. Amusing as Portman’s surreal cameos are, decked out in iconic costumes from her movies, they aren’t going to solve Keyonna’s domestic woes. For that, our troubled hero must find inner strength and focus. Her journey from daydreamer to family savior forms the heartfelt if undercooked arc of C.A. Johnson’s All the Natalie Portmans.
Earnestly staged by Kate Whoriskey, this coming-of-age drama is set in the gritty, northeast part of Washington, D.C., and if nothing else, offers a break from our usual diet of middle-class white subjects. These characters are one rent payment away from homelessness, and a wrong step can land you in jail (both calamities come to pass). Keyonna lives with her older brother, Samuel (Joshua Boone), and their mother, Ovetta (Montego Glover), who cleans hotel rooms. Still wracked with grief from the loss of her husband, Ovetta’s drinking problem has worsened; she vanishes for days at a time on benders. High-school dropout Samuel is holding the fort, working at a bar, and Keyonna, though a smart student, is more interested in re-watching A Walk to Remember than classes.
Her determined escapism – those dozens of collaged photos of beautiful movie actresses – has a distinctly Caucasian pall. As Samuel notes, skeptically surveying his sister’s dreamboard, “If it was me, I’d be putting up more Gabrielle Union. A lil’ more Sanaa Lathan. Plus, you ain’t even got Nia Long up here.” This focus on white divas – a not very subtle nod to the colorism that Keyonna has internalized from the dominant culture – suggests that she most wants to escape herself. The Natalies that pop up in Keyonna’s imagination must be exorcised if she is to achieve independence.
Young, last seen as a hard-bitten teen in Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven, effectively carries the show on her petite but unbreakable back. She’s magnificent, a live wire bouncing around Donyale Werle’s living-room unit set, trying to navigate hormonal confusion, anger at her mother and terror at the sudden responsibilities thrust upon her. I don’t know how old Young is (early 20s, I assume), but she reads effortlessly adolescent, with all the ferocity and fear that age brings.
Glover is equally powerful as the soul-bruised and resentful mother, whose tender maternal instincts can turn violent on a dime. And Boone exudes kindness and sensitivity as a young man who had to grow up too fast without learning all the rules.
However, despite vibrant acting and carefully wrought, intimate scenes, there’s a movie-of-the-week quality to Johnson’s storytelling that eventually saps tension and surprise. Johnson has obvious gifts for easy-flowing, realistic dialogue among family and friends, and she avoids melodramatic pitfalls in depicting the downtrodden. For all their flaws, each person is rendered as warm, self-knowing individuals trying to do the right thing, even if failure is fated. Johnson does not moralize; she shows that sobriety is hard and menial jobs are deadening, especially in a world that is constantly trying to break you.
Still, I felt the narrative threads sagged in the second half, as the Natalie appearances began to lose their comic zing and seemed weakly integrated into the main story. And although the piece ends on a wise note, a mix of defeat and hope, the journey there is too passive and protracted. Keyonna is forever recalling her favorite films; a better play wouldn’t have me pining for the multiplex.
David Cote is a theater critic, playwright and opera librettist based in New York City.