Nkechi is a lively teenage girl living in suburban Pennsylvania whose parents are native Nigerians and who appear periodically. MJ is a soulful young man she befriends and they have a complex relationship. JD is another youth who is also close to her. The other characters are Nkechi’s philosophical brother, MJ’s mother and a neighbor.
Good Grief opens with a celestial sequence and continues with Nkechi’s narration. Sometimes incidents are replayed in order to get them closer to the truth since all are memories and not always totally accurate. There’s an early fantasy boxing match that seems out of place. The slight plot involves the death of one of the characters and the profound effect it has on Nkechi.
Ms. Anyanwu’s writing has a heartfelt tone and she has created appealing characters but there’s vagueness as key events and biographical details are often hazily imparted. Pop culture references abound and become too cute. The wispy premise is ill-served by the obtrusive production design.
Jason Ardizzone-West’s multi-level scenic design has steel ramps, levels, ladders, sliding grill panels and a black padded platform. This grim environment would be appropriate for a Shakespearean saga or a revival of Arthur Miller’s fragmented After the Fall but overwhelms this material and is visually distracting. Lighting designer Oona Curley goes overboard with freneticism as does Daniel Kluger’s sound design. Composer Joy Ike’s original music is suitably spacey. Andy Jean replaces his artfully straightforward costumes with gleaming white ensembles for the cast to wear during a brief fantastical coda and it’s another overly elaborate feature.
In terms of technique, director Awoye Timpo’s staging is accomplished with its placement of the cast, sense of momentum and pictorial depth. However, like everything else, it clashes with the piece’s small scope. Ms. Timpo does achieve uniformly engaging performances from the company.
Nkechi is played by the vivacious Ms. Anyanwu whose beaming presence conveys the role’s emotional fragility. Ian Quinlan is smoothly charming and joyously boyish as MJ. This Is Us and Weeds regular, Hunter Parrish’s JD is marvelously goofy while being soulful. With authentic Nigerian accents Patrice Johnson Chevannes and Oberon K.A. Adjepong are both dynamically comedic and dramatic as the supportive parents. Lisa Ramirez makes a forceful impression as MJ’s mother and as a neighbor. The animated Nnamdi Asomugha brings humorous depth as the brother.
Good Grief’s poignant intentions are undercut by its deficient conception and overblown presentation.
Good Grief (through November 18, 2018)
Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212- 353-0303 or visit http://www.vineyardtheatre.org
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission