In Mara Nelson-Greenberg’s new play, Do You Feel Anger?, which had its world premiere at the 2018 Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville, she has attempted to write a Theater of the Absurd dark comedy about sexism in the workplace. Starting out offbeat and humorous, it quickly devolves into repeating itself endlessly without enough new material to keep us amused or shocked. In the Vineyard Theatre production, director Margot Bordelon and the high powered cast of seven are fully in tune with the author’s sensibility. Unfortunately, there are not enough surprises in this schematic play to keep us interested although the subject matter is eminently topical.
Twenty-something Sofia is hired as an empathy coach at a debt collection agency which has recently had a number of troubling incidents that have led to lawsuits. However, the boss Jon doesn’t think there is a problem and brags that they now have maternity leave “where we let women leave when they’re giving birth,” but he doesn’t know what empathy is or why a women’s bathroom should have a place for tampons. Sofia herself comes from a dysfunctional family which we occasionally hear about between the office scenes. He thinks one session may be enough.
When Sofia meets the staff, she has her work cut out for her. Eva who finds the office “a really fantastic, really scary work environment” and has kept a client on the phone for over four hours and 32 minutes is more interested in who keeps mugging her when she goes into the kitchen to get a cup of coffee. She does warn Sofia to say that she has a boyfriend or the men in the office will hit on her continually. Janie has gone to the ladies room at some earlier meeting, leaving her cardigan and cup of coffee behind, and never came back.
In her first session, Sofia tells the assembled group (Eva, Jordan and Howie) that she wants to teach them about “compassionate listening.” Jordan thinks he is a poet but defines “empathy” as a bird. Howie tells her he would love to sleep with her, and that “our job is to collect money from people. There’s no time for feelings.” To counter all this, Sofia attempts to go through a series of exercises from analyzing a particularly bad telephone call to describing feelings to pictures or test cases. The sessions go from bad to worse.
Unfortunately, the men don’t want to cooperate or listen and Eva is preoccupied with her recent breakup with her boyfriend and the continual muggings where she gets hit on the head. The men think “horn” for horniness is an appropriate emotion and draw inappropriate cartoons about the women. Among the strange events that occur in the course of the five sessions we witness are a 130-year-man (Tom Aulino) arriving to blow up the office and Howie losing his temper and grabbing a baseball bat. While these occurrences come as a surprise, seeming more and more chaotic, ultimately they feel just like more of the same.
Aside from the fact that the absurdist events are totally random and no longer funny after we get used to their happening periodically, each scene begins the same way with Sofia arriving at the conference room to begin her morning session with her recalcitrant students only to be confronted with a new problem. These office scenes are all prefaced by a phone call from Sofia’s mother in which she complains about her abusive husband who has left her and the fact that Sofia has not called her in weeks. This all becomes so schematic that the play becomes predictable and ultimately tedious. The violent ending is not entirely prepared for and the play seems to go in a totally different direction than in the preceding scenes.
Director Bordelon who directed the play at the Humana Festival has worked well with the actors who mainly behave as though they thought their roles are humorous. As Jon the office manager, Greg Keller is a character out of a surrealistic Ionesco play, quirky and unpredictable. Megan Hill’s Eva is both realistic at times and completely off the wall at others like when she can’t recall if her boyfriend’s name is Marcus or Jeffrey and can’t define what murder means. As Howie, film and television star Justin Long is scary as a man who can’t control his anger and has no filter on his statements or conversation. As played by Ugo Chukwu, Jordan seems autistic and he is given a couple of physical outbreaks. Jeanne Sakata’s periodic appearances as Sofia’s mother do not make clear if she has been as big a problem as Sofia’s father in their marital relationship.
While Laura Jellinek’s office setting is very realistic, it suggests from its design that it will change in some way or perform tricks but it never does. Marie Yokoyama has lit the conference room realistically with some colored light displays between the scenes which do not seem to be noticed by the characters. The costumes by Emilio Sosa are appropriately business casual but fail to make any statement about the denizens of the collection agency until the final surrealistic scene which takes place elsewhere.
As a playwright, Mara Nelson-Greenberg has a unique new voice. However, in Do You Feel Anger?, she allows a skit to go on for the length of an entire play without developing the idea much further. The topic is explosive, but the presentation palls too soon in the evening. It will be interesting to see what her work offers in the future. Under Margot Bordelon’s assured direction, the cast is always believable even while playing crazy characters and saying outrageous things.
Do You Feel Anger? (through April 20, 2019)
Vineyard Theatre, 108 E. 15th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-353-0303 or visit http://www.vineyardtheatre.org
Running time: 95 minutes with no intermission