Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association. Photo by Fadeout Media.
There are times when excellent acting and good intentions are not enough to make a play work, and this is the case with A Red Orchid Theatre’s latest offering, Mara Nelson-Greenberg’s Do You Feel Anger?, which does contain some decent laughs but ultimately falls apart, weighed down by an aggressively absurdist structure that feels at times like a single joke repeated over and over and at others like a bunch of leftover ideas that didn’t fit into other plays.
The play is intended to be a kind of absurdist feminist satire on office sexual dynamics, depicting a debt collection office in which all of the men, including the boss, are unrelenting neanderthals while the lone woman tries to fend off their advances by pretending to have a boyfriend. (Technically there is a second woman, but she broke down one day and never came back from the bathroom, and the boss has a female secretary whom we never see.) Into this vision of political incorrectness and pre-#metoo predatory behavior comes an empathy specialist played by the brilliant Emjoy Gavino, whose last outing was one of the best performances of 2019 in Kentucky. There, Gavino’s operating dynamic was depressive anger; here her character works in an entirely different mode: frustration masked by false optimism, forced smiles, and determined hopefulness as she slowly discovers that this particular den of toxic maleness is pretty much unflappable.
It’s a place where the boss (a solid Lawrence Grimm) is blissfully unaware of how the female reproduction system functions. (Discovering what “period” refers to, he nearly collapses in shocked horror before demanding that his secretary lie to him and define it more comfortably.) It’s a place where one of the male customer service agents (Levi Holloway) yells at people on the phone and is coddled by everyone despite occasional total meltdowns. It’s a place where he and another male agent (Bernard Gilbert), who banter openly about women’s bodies and tell elaborately graphic sexual jokes while enthusiastically arguing that “empathy” is a bird, have no concept whatsoever about any emotion except “horn.” (When shown a photo of a smiling face, for example, they guess that it’s showing fear.) It’s a place where that lone female worker (a brilliantly comic performance by Sadieh Rifai) may be safe from unwanted propositions but is still mugged daily in the break room.
Clearly, Gavino’s Sofia has her work cut out for her.
The thing is that some of this is pretty funny in small doses, but the one-note characters wear out their welcome long before ninety minutes are finished. The three men here (and a fourth, an old man played by Paul Dillon who enters for one long monologue that, I don’t know, highlights the kind of future these lunkheads might have?) are just not interesting enough, despite some fine acting, to make us want to keep watching them. Their words and ideas are cringeworthy in the worst ways, and even their tenuous triumphs in pursuit of the elusive concept of empathy aren’t worth much. And, yes, of course that’s the playwright’s point—men like this are still in charge of the world no matter what progress women might make—but that doesn’t help much the fourth or fifth time Gilbert’s Jordan starts reciting the poem he lives by or when Holloway’s Howie stubbornly refuses to understand even the most superficial concepts.
The only thing consistently worth watching is the changing dynamic between Sofia and Rifai’s nervous, mile-a-minute talking Eva, who learns to stop placating the chauvinists in the office at the same time as Sofia—desperate to justify her job—starts caving in to them in a too-obvious example of bad men wearing good women down. (Oh, yes: this is most definitely a very simplistic one-way equation here; women good, men bad. Ugh.)
I usually like A Red Orchid; their last play, Grey House, was on my 2019 top ten list. And I think that the performances here—as well as Jess McLeod’s direction—are strong. I even enjoy a good absurdist comedy. But long before this play breaks down into a violent, frenetic, and bizarre ten-minute ending that makes no sense whatsoever, I was more than ready for it to end. I know some people liked it more—there was consistent laughter from several people—but I just can’t recommend it. In the end, I didn’t feel anger (or empathy); I just felt frustrated.
Do You Feel Anger? is now playing at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells, Chicago, IL, until Mar 15. The show runs approximately 90 minutes; there is no intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.