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Theatre in Review: Do You Feel Anger? (Vineyard Theatre)

Don't look now, but are we beginning to experience a Theatre of the Absurd revival? I tremble at the thought, yet the evidence mounts: The Mother, at Atlantic Theater, features Isabelle Huppert as a formidable matron trapped in a mental funhouse whose mirrors reflect nothing less than her disintegrating sense of self. The more the play's veneer of everyday normality is peeled away, the more it starts to look like a collaboration between Jean Genet and Jean-Paul Sartre. (Those two self-regarding males would probably bring Simone de Beauvoir onboard, if only to do the typing.) In Do You Feel Anger?, Mara Nelson-Greenberg envisions a workplace where the bizarrely inconsistent code of conduct and out-of-left-field gags mask (barely) a sinister and corrupt regime that prizes conformity and demonizes women. At times, I felt as if I was seeing an update of Ionesco's Rhinoceros. This isn't necessarily praise. Given playwright Florian Zeller's French birthright, The Mother comes by its provenance honestly, even if at times it feels like a lost work from another era. In the case of Do You Feel Anger?, Nelson-Greenberg has big shoes to fill. Sofia, the heroine of Do You Feel Anger?

Howie, who is all too typical of the male employees, can't be crossed or he will fling himself against a wall, fall to the floor, and pass out. He and his colleague Jordan amuse themselves with drawings depicting the evisceration of their female co-workers, one of whom apparently fled to the ladies' room, never to return. Eva, seemingly the last woman left in the department, gets through the day in an advanced state of hysteria, one minute insisting that all is well, the next telling Sofia, on the QT, that the best way to avoid unwanted male attention is to land a boyfriend, any boyfriend, ASAP, and talk about him at length. If necessary, invent one, she adds. A walking panic attack, she continually contradicts herself as she rattles on: "I know you hear 'debt collection agency' and you think everyone in this office must be really mean, but you're right. It's a very small, insular community here, and everyone is so outgoing and mean and it's just a really fantastic, really scary work environment. Someone keeps mugging me when I'm walking around the office."

It's not that the men of the office are callous and cruel, it's that they are incapable of understanding the basic building blocks of emotional maturity. Any word that alludes to an emotional state is mispronounced, as if it comes from a foreign language -- "norvis" for "nervous," for example. (Howie insists "nervous" isn't a real word.) And, asked to explain the meaning of empathy, each man, having fiercely concentrated on the question, comes up with the same response: It's the name of a bird, right?

Throughout these shenanigans, Sofia admirably keeps her cool, even when Jon, the supervisor, repeatedly tries to get her to sign the form attesting to the completion of training, or when each conversation ends up in a deep and inescapable rabbit hole. The mayhem is nonstop. Eva keeps accidentally admitting, in moments of near panic, that her imaginary boyfriend shares his first name with her father. Trying to suppress an exchange that seems danger-prone, she will, by way of changing the subject, casually discuss how, "in the mitosis stage," she ate her twin sister. When Sofia notes that women have no place to dispose of their tampons, Jon has to call the main office to get the details of menstruation -- - information that leaves him a sobbing wreck until Sofia, worried about his total collapse, assures him that it isn't true. The training session takes in, among other things, Dutch horror films, something called a "piss chart," a pair of dog food cans passed off as bombs, a carefully concealed baseball bat, and Eva's deep-seated desire to be a mermaid. Sometimes the guys fall all over themselves to win Sofia's approval; later, they trap her in the boardroom and casually menace her.

The line between a successful absurdist farce and a fair-to-middling comedy sketch is perilously thin; Greenberg-Nelson delivers a solid premise, but, despite some scattered laughs, can't deliver on it. Her language lacks the icy precision that might keep one engaged, and, having set up her situation, she repeats the same jokes to ever diminishing effect. Basically, ire supplants satire; the most effective humor is rooted in a spectrum ranging from irritation to all-out rage, but here the latter emotion takes over, as if punishing the audience for laughing. Clearly a talented writer, she intends to walk a tightrope of amusement and discomfort, but she stubs her toe and falls off.

This is so despite a production, by Margot Bordelon, that has the hard, bright quality of a comic strip and the pacing of a revue sketch. Tiffany Villarin, who stars as Sofia, mostly plays straight woman to a series of well-crafted (under the circumstances) comic grotesques. Leading the way by far is Megan Hill as Eva, who, flapping about the stage like a marionette recently released from her strings, flings herself into a dizzying series of conflicting attitudes -- and, later on, emerging as a kind of tragic heroine during a coda sequence that happens to be the strongest piece of the play. Justin Long and Ugo Chukwu are prime examples of male toxicity as Howie and Jordan, and, armed with that power-drill vocal whine, Greg Keller makes one's flesh crawl with each appearance as the smarmy Jon. Tom Aulino is fine as a mysterious old man who makes a surprise appearance largely to restate the play's theme.

At first, Laura Jellinek's flimsy office set looks like a rather so-so contribution, until it executes one of the more astonishing coups de théâtre of the season. (To say more would be telling too much.) In addition to their suitability for each character, Emilio Sosa's costumes are loaded with sly details that tell you about the characters' changing emotional states. Marie Yokoyama's lighting and Palmer Hefferan's original music and sound design are equally solid.

In addition to the scenic switch, the play's climax also makes a U-turn, signaling that Sofia's real problems have less to do with jungle-like office politics than with her inability to express rage over the breakup of her parents' marriage. (Throughout the play, we've seen Jeanne Sakata, first-rate as Sofia's mother, desperately trying to reach her on the phone.) The seismic finale is cued by Sofia getting in touch with her anger at her dad -- who, we learn early on, has a second family. An interesting point, although one has to wonder by Nelson-Greenberg didn't write a play about that. Instead, we have Do You Feel Anger?, which addresses the issue in a way that is both frustratingly obviously and yet -- at least in terms of the lead character -- surprisingly oblique.-- David Barbour


(8 April 2019)

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