The Cancellation of Lauren Fein by Christopher Demos-Brown. A world premiere that on the surface, the title alone tells you what the play will be about – for those up to date on cancel culture and everything around it. There is no doubt that this topic is something that should be explored, a complicated subject that deserves to be talked about, dissected, and analyzed because it is a difficult one to understand and come to terms with. Christopher Demos-Brown has started an important conversation with this play… but maybe this wasn’t the way to go about it.
Without giving too much away – this play tells the story of Lauren Fein; a tenured professor with a wife and adopted son – and while giving a lecture gives a comparison example that is then – according to the play – misinterpreted by a student as racially insensitive and then spirals out of control. Scene by scene the issue of miscommunication and rumors grows like a tumor with Lauren trying to grasp onto something to keep her head above water. The audience watches how no matter what she tries, there is no way out of what has been painted as the “beast” of cancel culture.
Directed by Margaret Ledford, this Palm Beach Dramaworks production does the job of making what could easily be a whirlwind of yelling and finger pointing into an entertaining and at times captivating piece of theatre.
The production is stacked with South Florida Theatre veterans, kicking it all off with Niki Fridh as the titular character. Lauren Fein struggles to come out the other side of what comes off as a 21st century witch hunt, and despite any and all attempts to reclaim her life, control slips out of her grasp. Fridh attacks the role and while the character might come off as unlikable, she has the audience laughing with each snide remark.
Standing by Lauren Fein as not only her partner, but as the narrative guide is Paola Moreno, also a university professor. Diana Garle guides the audience through the story and exists as Feins moral compass and does so with a knack for compassion and empathy that Fein sometimes lacks. Paola, the lone Latine character in the play, is voiced, in both Spanish and English, by Garle’s flawless PR accent. However, the play never discusses where she is from, so the accent seems to be a choice, meant to emphasize the perspective of a person of color on the stage, a feat already accomplished by the Spanglish dialogue.
The ensemble is a large one with each actor better than the last; Karen Stephens as the best friend Dean Marilyn Whitney who never lets up while being the voice of reason through the fury that Fein seems to be pushed into, Bruce Linser as Moreno’s best friend and fellow theatre professor Evan Reynolds is an absolute pleasure to watch with consistent authenticity. Following them is Malcolm Callender as Fein and Morenos adopted son Dylan Fein-Moreno, Odera Adimorah as Feins research partner Chikezie Nweze, Stephen Trovillion as the Atticus Finch type Buddy McGovern, Barbara Sloan as the stern Judge Loraine Miller, and Lindsey Corey as the voracious Melanie Jones.
Demos-Brown’s sharp, authentic, and quick dialogue truly resonates with this cast bringing each line to life. The minimalist scenic design by Anne Mundell was beautifully highlighted by the elegant light design from Kirk Bookman. It was all brought together with the amazing video design by Adam J. Thompson that gave each scene a touch of something special that helped shape the play. This particular piece touches heavily on power dynamics and intimacy and one of the most important intimate scenarios that is the crux of the whole story wouldn’t have been possible without the important and impeccable work from intimacy choreographer Nicole Perry with a vulnerable performance from Kaelyn Ambert-Gonzalez. She creates a scene that not only feels real, but also somehow presents three perspectives in one by collaborating with lighting in a striking way.
The problem that the play suffers is one of perspective. Instead of drawing harsh criticism, it only leaves us with questions. Even though cancel culture has a very toxic side, accountability conversations could be just as dramatic, so why wasn’t the other side explored? Why was it made a villain with no redeeming qualities? Why were the only seemingly intelligent characters the ones in power, while the students were all made to be babbling attack dogs? Why doesn’t the play ask questions instead of only making volatile accusations? Although it is a subject matter that needs representation on more stages, is a one-sided display of rumors, sarcasm, social media frenzy, the best way to create conversation or change? A one-sided conversation that not only ignores the nuance, but makes anyone on the other side feel like they got their hands dirty in the worst way? What stuck the most is a final speech that Lauren Fein gives that while intelligently written, and meant to evoke audience emotions, is actually culturally insensitive. Claiming that identities don’t matter – all that matters is the human experience, and while the sentiment is understood, the words lean in another direction.
The play is effective in its job of showing the negative side of cancel culture, without perspective as to why calling someone out when done correctly can be helpful for those without power and privilege. A piece that will make certain audiences feel validated, while others are ignored.
Although the play could use some more developmental attention – because it is an extremely difficult and complex topic, the production is worth the watch. With tickets that are definitely too expensive for the regular audience member – if you can get a discounted ticket or afford the average $89 price, then the show is running until February 18th, so do your best to make it out. Ticket link below: https://tickets.palmbeachdramaworks.org/TheatreManager/1/login?event=469