'Do You Feel Anger?': Theater Review
An "empathy coach" tries to help the employees of a debt-collection agency in Mara Nelson-Greenberg's absurdist ensemble comedy featuring Justin Long.
Humor is often based on surprise. You laugh when you hear something coming out of a person's mouth that you didn't expect. It's a common theory that playwright Mara Nelson-Greenberg takes entirely too much to heart in her absurdist workplace comedy receiving its New York premiere at off-Broadway's Vineyard Theatre. Nearly all of its characters consistently deliver lines designed to be funny in their shocking incongruity. But once you're onto the trick, which is almost immediately, Do You Feel Anger? becomes a tiresome, repetitive exercise that squanders its important themes.
The play is set in a debt-collection agency where thirtysomething "empathy coach" Sofia (Tiffany Villarin) has arrived to provide lessons to its employees about how to better deal with people. It immediately becomes apparent that Sofia has her work cut out for her. The boss, Jon (Greg Keller), tells her, "I really want to pretend that I'm a good guy" and proudly describes the office maternity policy "where we let women leave as they're giving birth." In an example of the blatant sexism and misogyny that Sofia is about to experience firsthand, he tells her she would do better at her job if she wore a dress and rhapsodizes about his fondness for "blowjobs without reciprocation." He also seems to have no idea what a woman's period is, calling a female assistant for an explanation and reacting with horror when he hears it.
The employees are equally strange. Eva (Megan Hill) appears more than a little jittery, which is understandable since she tells Sofia that someone keeps mugging her in the office. Eva also recently broke up with her boyfriend, although she can't remember his name. Jordan (Ugo Chukwu) is a self-described poet who thinks that "empathy is a bird." Howie (Justin Long) freely admits his anger issues, which result in his verbally attacking debtors; he also immediately begins hitting on Sofia. And there's another female employee, represented by a cardigan sweater slung over a chair, who never returned from a visit to the ladies' room.
While dealing with this group of lunatics, Sofia receives a series of plaintive phone messages from her mother (Jeanne Sakata), who has been abandoned by Sofia's father. The errant patriarch informed both his wife and daughter that he has a second family via email. That Sofia keeps letting her mother's calls go to voicemail indicates she may be in need of some empathy lessons herself.
Other elements of the surreal proceedings include the unexpected appearance of a 130-year-old man (Tom Aulino) threatening to blow up the office, and a fantastical ending involving, among other things, Eva appearing as a mermaid and the women experiencing uncontrolled bleeding from various parts of their bodies.
If you found much of that description of the goings-on amusing, Do You Feel Anger? may indeed tickle your funny bone. I personally found it grating. Its repetitive, one-note dialogue has the feel of the Abbott and Costello "Who's on First?" routine on an endless loop. The play's more surreal aspects prove even less effective, including the climactic scene involving an unnecessarily lavish (but admittedly impressive) scenery change.
It's a shame, because the playwright clearly has serious points to make about male subjugation, toxic workplace environments and the ways in which women are forced to comport themselves to function within them. Under Margot Bordelon's fast-paced direction, the talented performers work hard for the intended laughs and sporadically deliver. But much like the male characters' preferred sexual predilection, this is a play that seems to pleasure itself without reciprocation.
Venue: Vineyard Theatre, New York
Cast: Tom Aulino, Ugo Chukwu, Megan Hill, Greg Keller, Justin Long, Jeanne Sakata, Tiffany Villarin
Playwright: Mara Nelson-Greenberg
Director: Margot Bordelon
Set designer: Laura Jellinek
Costume designer: Emilio Sosa
Lighting designer: Marie Yokoyama
Music & sound designer: Palmer Hefferan
Presented by Vineyard Theatre