(l to r) Tiffany Villarin and Megan Hill in ‘Do You Feel Angry?’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
By Samuel L. Leiter
As I left the Vineyard Theatre after seeing Do You Feel Anger?, Mara Nelson-Greenberg’s absurdist, #MeToo-inclined farce about male-female office relationships, a female critic told me the play so confused and annoyed her she probably wouldn’t write about it.
Soon after, as I waited for my companion to return from the restroom, two unfamiliar women asked my opinion of the play. After hearing my unhappy response, they demurred, noting how “moving” they found its depiction of sexual harassment. The same split reaction could be observed during the performance, with many rapt and laughing loudly, while the remainder watched in grim-faced silence.
Set in a generic conference room (designed by Laura Jellinek), the play focuses on Sofia (Tiffany Villarin, Teenage Dick), a determined young “empathy coach,” who has an assignment to provide sessions at a frequently sued debt-collection company. Three childish workers attend: Eva (Megan Hill), Howie (Justin Long, Seminar), and Jordan (Ugo Chukwu). One chair (with a woman’s sweater draped on it) remains unoccupied.
Sofia’s goal is to help the workers treat others with respect and to respond with “compassionate listening,” for which they must learn the value of empathy. Much of the humor comes when nobody actually listens to her.
Every now and then, she must deal with the inane boss, Jon (Gregg Keller, The Amateurs), who’s more concerned with getting Sofia to sign the official papers stating that the sessions are over than with what they have to offer. He thinks only a day or two are needed; she needs weeks before she meets her goals.
Also occasionally interrupting the narrative are calls from Sofia’s mother (Jeanne Sakata) concerning her father, whom she’s learned has a second family. Sofia’s unempathetic failure to answer ironically belies her job title. And, oh, yes, there’s also an old man with a walker (Tom Aulino), who for some reason, comes on, rants, and threatens to blow the place up with cans of dog food.
Right away, Eva — her cheerful tone clashing with her dialogue — tells Sofia how mean everyone at the company is, repeating that someone is always mugging her as she walks around the office. She then both denies and agrees that she said that, warning Sofia that the men who work here will constantly be hitting on her and that she must quickly shut them down, or else she’ll disappear.
This sets the tone for the nutty stuff that follows, with a weirdness suggesting that everyone but Sofia, the apparent voice of reason, is somehow cuckoo. They contradict themselves, mingle logical discourse with non-sequiturs, and even fail to comprehend basic vocabulary (Jon, for example, has no idea what tampons or periods are). Even empathy needs to be defined. Here’s a quick exchange:
SOFIA: Eva — do you have a terrible temper?
EVA: What? No! Why? Did someone say I did?
EVA: Good — because I don’t. Instead of anger, I choose to feel — what’s the word for “nothing”?
EVA: Well, I feel whatever the word would be for “nothing,” if it existed.
And then there are the never-ending bits about loving “blowjobs without reciprocation” or badly pronounced French. At first, some of this is cute and chuckle-worthy but it quickly wears off. You must then endure words and actions that grow increasingly surrealistic (as in a late-arriving bathroom scene and mermaid costume) and exponentially less funny.
Especially outlandish is the clueless behavior toward women (and everything else) of the Tweedledee and Tweedledum nitwits, Howie and Jordan, who create such a hellish workplace environment that we begin to wonder about Janie, owner of that sweater, said to be always in the bathroom. Jon even admits being fond of the way things are in his “little family,” “bubbling resentment and ongoing power struggles and all!” The contrast between Sofia’s normalcy and the lunacy of the others is so strong you can’t help wondering:
A: Why doesn’t she quit?
B: Is it all going to turn out to be her nightmare?
Fortunately, an impressively able company, under Margot Bordelon’s upbeat direction and wearing the character-defining costumes of Emilio Sosa, keeps the manic atmosphere bristling. Important as the messages are about sexual harassment and the need for empathy, they’re wrapped in such outrageously cartoonish behavior that some are likely to answer the title question, “Yes.”
Do You Feel Anger?
108 E. 15th St., NYC
Through April 20
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. Sam, a Drama Desk voter, has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theatre, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side, Theater Pizzazz, and Theater Life.