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Theatre in Review: We're Gonna Die (Second Stage Theater)

Janelle McDermoth. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Don't be put off by the title of Young Jean Lee's new entertainment; in fact, it articulates the good news. And, if you've been feeling a little roiled by events lately -- and who among us has not? -- you might consider making a pit stop at Second Stage for a little spiritual tune-up, courtesy of this brief evening of songs and stories. Not that We're Gonna Die deals in politics; instead, it focuses on the sorrows that, sooner or later, come for us all. It's a sort of exercise in self-care, aided by a beguiling song list designed to help one face life's reverses with grace and good will. Once again, Lee proves that she is an original.

Janelle McDermoth, who serves as hostess and lead singer, begins with a story about an uncle of no small eccentricity. (To be clear, she is playing a fictional character named Singer; her material has been synthesized by Lee from real-life events that happened to her and others.) She remembers spying on him one night after bedtime, discovering him alone, shockingly attacking himself with bitter recriminations. Ever since this TMI moment, she says she wished that there was "some form of comfort available to us so that, when we're in that isolated place of pain, there would be something to make us feel better and not so alone. And I always imagined that if I found that comfort, it would take the form of something big and revelatory and amazing. But when I have encountered actual comfort in my life, it's never been anything like that. It's usually been something really ordinary and common sense."

The rest of We're Gonna Die illustrates this point. In addition to the tale of the tormented uncle, McDermoth recounts a dishonor roll of existential reverses involving faithless friends, overheard (and devastating) truths, failed romances, and fear of aging. The story involving a quirk of fate and the death of a parent is one for the books, as is one involving a close friend who makes an appalling discovery about her marriage. Each tale is told simply and directly, without pushing for melodrama or punchlines. These are merely the everyday terrible things that happen to people innocently going about their lives. There is no guarding against them, no way of making them disappear. They must be endured, and one must move on.

How to do so? In We're Gonna Die, the balm of choice is music; the evening is paced by a series of numbers with music by Lee, Tim Simmonds, and John-Michael Lyles, and lyrics by Lee. The latter will never be mistaken for the work of Cole Porter -- the playwright prefers simple declarative statements, repeated several times -- but the music, a kind funk-jazz-pop fusion -- washes over the room, creating a warmly contemplative tone. The sounds are as mellow as good whiskey enjoyed in the midnight hour of a troubled day that is swiftly receding into memory. Under these circumstances, even the spikiest of Lee's words resemble the sweetest of reason. "Who do you think you are?" sings McDermoth. "To be immune from tragedy?/What makes you special?/That you should go unscathed?" And you know, she's right. It might be an obvious thought but, in a society that so constantly promotes the primacy of the self, it's one you can't hear too often.

If it's the music that, largely, rescues We're Gonna Die from an excess of commonplace sentiments, it is also true that McDermoth is a relaxed, personable leading lady, casting a spell without seeming to try. She is aided by a quintet of fine musicians -- Ximone Rose, Debbie Christine Tjong, Kevin Ramessar, Freddy Hall, and Marques Walls -- who make the best possible case for the score. (One hopes that a recording is in the offing.) Raja Feather Kelly's direction strikes the right easygoing note; he also provides a joyously choreographed finale.

Also to Kelly's credit, a show that was previously produced under much more intimate circumstances holds the stage in the company's expansive Tony Kiser Theater, thanks to some inspired design work. David Zinn's set -- a recording studio that could also be a hospital waiting room but for the spiral staircase just right of center stage -- provides plenty of room for the musicians to breathe. (You can't miss the sliding illuminated sign bearing the show's title.) Tuce Yasak's inventive lighting design includes bold color combinations, geometric shapes, and a gorgeous audience wash effect, among other creative strategies. Naoko Nagata's costumes appear to have come straight from the runway of some downtown design shows. Jason Crystal's sound design finds a nearly ideal balance of vocals and instruments.

In a previous incarnation, We're Gonna Die was performed at Joe's Pub, and you could certainly regard it as little more than a high-concept cabaret act. If there is a slight sense that Second Stage is indulging a high-profile writer, there are many worse ways of chilling out and contemplating the fate that we are all heir to. As the piece concludes, Lee has the audience happily singing the title words, as balloons descend and confetti flies; everyone departs in a cloud of collective good will. This, if you think about it, is a pretty neat trick. --David Barbour

(26 February 2020)

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