If Mara Nelson-Greenberg’s Do You Feel Anger were a person, it might be some wild-eyed combination of Kate McKinnon on Saturday Night Live and Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight. It’s funny, it’s mordant, and it keeps you on edge with a loopiness that masks something somber and truly frightening. It can feel a little crazed, but there’s no mistaking its fierce, embattled sanity.
The play is a surreal office satire with fangs, a compact meditation on violence, fear, and the kind of weary, twitchy compliance that results from day after day of normalized aggression. Sofia (Tiffany Villarin) is an empathy coach with a soothing voice and a binder full of encouraging exercises. She’s been hired by a debt-collection agency to help its employees treat each other and the poor folks on the other end of their calls with more compassion. “You’re here to try and help us scream less at people on the phone?” chirps Eva (Megan Hill), a bundle of quivering positivity with terrified eyes and a frozen smile. As Eva rattles on at Sofia, we learn the play’s spiky, absurdist vocabulary: “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!”
Apart from Sofia, the outsider and audience surrogate, Nelson-Greenberg’s characters exist in a heightened, almost sociopathic realm. Like menacing clowns, they speak the creepy subtext of their mundane work banter and then jabber on smilingly as if all they’d said was, “Good morning!” “Bottom line, over everything else, I really want to pretend that I’m a ‘good guy,’” the boss, Jon (Greg Keller), half-screeches through a chummy grin. Then there’s Howie (Justin Long), the surly bro who treats his “terrible temper” as a point of pride and introduces himself to Sofia with a gallant, “I don’t mean to make you feel uncomfortable, but I’d love to have sex with you.” (His priceless response, when she responds that it does make her feel uncomfortable: “Well, I don’t mean it, so.”) Finally, at Howie’s side always, there’s Jordan (Ugo Chukwu), in bow-tie and glasses, the self-styled “poet” who fancies himself the office intellect: “Empathy is a bird,” he informs Howie didactically. Jon, Howie, and Jordan are capable of identifying roughly three feelings: Hunger, anger, and “horn” — “when you want to have sex with someone,” Jon explains. After weeks of lessons with Sofia, Howie has made enough progress that he can put his budding empathy skills to work when he finds out that Eva is newly single: “Watch this, Sofia!” he crows, “I would be curious to see how [Eva] would feel about giving me a blow job without reciprocation. I … feel that I love blow jobs without reciprocation.”
Director Margot Bordelon smartly keeps the play zinging along at a breathless pace. The nightmarishness of the men’s blithe, brutal idiocy is buoyed up by the script’s genuinely weird comic brightness. There’s a vertiginous feeling to the whole thing — we laugh, we feel ill, we’re rushed forward before our gorges can finish rising. Listening to Eva speak is like being swept downstream by a cheerful little brook: The current’s a touch too fast to feel safe, and you keep getting sliced by tiny rocks, but it all just goes by so fast that you can’t quite focus on the pain, right? Right! Except that eventually you’ll reach a waterfall, and when you do, you’ll be covered in blood. “Oh, you know what?” Eva shrieks with frantic exuberance, attempting to distract from the fact that Sofia has just bluntly requested not to be hit on. “I ate my sister in the uterus!”
Eva is the only woman in the office — well, almost. “I know that they keep saying Janie’s just in the bathroom,” she giggles nervously, “but … it’s been so many days!” Janie’s the office ghost — she seems to have escaped, but to where, and did she make it out alive? Do You Feel Anger? starts to sting as it tracks Eva’s efforts at liberation, even as the pleasant, right-thinking Sofia is sucked into the very toxicity she’s trying to cure. The empathy coach is running from her own demons: She’s recently discovered that her father has a second family, and the play is punctuated by solos in which Sofia’s mother (Jeanne Sakata) leaves her increasingly desperate phone messages — not exactly a fresh device but one that adds up to something worthwhile. She just wants to see how her daughter is doing. She knows Sofia must be “processing some complicated feelings.” She’s just checking in, saying hi, sending love. Why won’t her daughter call her back?
Even as zany, battered Eva dares to make a tentative stand for herself, Sofia’s outlines begin to blur. She slips into appeasing Howie and Jordan and takes poisonous, conciliatory advice: “Maybe you want to start dating someone like, ASAP,” Eva has suggested, while Jon has recommended, beaming as always, that she try wearing a dress. She also calls not her mother but her father. Repeatedly. Trying to understand him, to empathize with him, to forgive him. She was warned: “Even if you do shut [them] down,” Eva told her the first time they met, sparkling and fraught as ever, “eventually they’ll find a way around it and then they’ll wear you down until you disappear.”
Eva is the Cassandra of Do You Feel Anger?, an unheard prophet who only looks insane from turning herself inside out in an attempt to navigate an insane world, a world that values her humanity infinitely less than it values Howie and Jordan’s comfort, their right to feel good about themselves at all times and at any cost. Hill is excellent in the role — high-strung, scary-funny, and eventually, in the play’s awful climax, full of real, harrowing pathos. No longer even a little bit of a cartoon. She’s surrounded by equally on-point fellow actors, from Long’s ugly, blustering man-child to Chukwu’s narcissistic, self-deluding sensitive type and, in a nastily effective cameo, Tom Aulino as a 130-year-old man whose story about a grade-school playground trauma shines a light on all the masculinity in the play. This is a world where men don’t grow up, where they remain children — with children’s self-absorption and impatience, children’s viciousness and even children’s limited vocabularies — and the only change is that they get taller, hornier, and are given power.
It’s a charged synchronicity that Do You Feel Anger? and What the Constitution Means to Me are sharing a moment on the theater space-time continuum. They would make for a wallop of a double bill. If Heidi Schreck’s play is the older sister — ambitious and sincere, nonfictional and yet brilliantly dramatic — then Nelson-Greenberg’s is the younger: semi-feral and mischievous, a little warped and yet smart as hell and serious as a car crash. And like too many of those, the play’s violence isn’t accidental but incidental. It’s the bloody consequence of what and whom we decide to value.
Do You Feel Anger? is at the Vineyard Theatre through April 20.