Theater Review: DO YOU FEEL ANGER? (A Red Orchid)

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by Lawrence Bommer on February 2, 2020

in Theater-Chicago


Lately a chronic lack of empathy—sensitivity to the feelings of others–threatens to become a liability as great as any budget deficit. Compassion has never felt less contagious.

So maybe it’s time for Do You Feel AngerNo indignant expose of sociopathic alienation, this 2019 drama by Mara Nelson-Greenberg, now in a vigorous Chicago premiere by A Red Orchid Theatre, is not a wake-up call against folks who couldn’t care more. In fact, at its worst it wallows in its depictions of dysfunction in the workplace. But its sinister black humor manages to intrigue, at least until an imponderably bizarre ending finally takes it over a very tall cliff.

Given gallows-humor, shock-effect dialogue that varies from casually cruel to passive-aggressive, director Jess McLeod and her seven-member ensemble work hard to make it real. More an exercise in style than content, Nelson-Greenberg’s forte (and fault) is to layer non sequiturs on top of serial absurdities. This exasperating quirkiness is delivered with a matter-of-fact deadpan that’s dry and dangerous. Nelson-Greenberg creates a world of broken beings utterly clueless about–and sadly contented with—their utter lack of an inner life.

We’re at a debt collection agency where upper management has—for reasons we’d like to know but never do—commissioned an empathy “coach” to motivate the workers by opening them up to altruism. Initially confident, then regressively despairing, Sofia (Emjoy Gavino) is a peppy proponent of positivity.

Hoping to increase productivity by spreading sensitivity, Sofia wants to share the care and build an “empathy engine.” With audio-visual tools, role-playing exercises, and a whiteboard, she will transform these seven operatives, office bullies who threaten lapsed creditors over the phone, into “woke” souls who can listen long enough to recognize other people’s emotions. (A cynic might also think that it’s also to exploit those victims.) But Sofia has got her own “dark night of the soul,” mainly a mother (Jennifer Jelsema) whose painful divorce triggers little reaction from her daughter.

It’s not easy to touch these corporate agents of harassment. They seem hard-wired to be hard-boiled. All their “inner voices” are outer, no filters whatever. Eager to end this workshop as soon as possible, the boss Jon (Lawrence Grimm) reflexively denies and defends his employees’ indifference. Troubled Eva (Sadieh Rifai) is a likable chatterbox who’s plagued with visions of mermaids and intimations of muggings in the kitchen.

They’re hardly imaginary, given the kneejerk sexism and horndog proclivities of Howie (Levi Holloway) and Jordan (Bernard Gilbert). Stunted seventh graders, these guys, blind to any affect, confuse anger with hunger and explain a smiling face as a picture of pain. Howie is prone to temper tantrums as he screams “Baby says NO!” and convulses into fetal positions. They’re so ignorant of women’s needs that they can’t grasp the concept of a “period”.

We also encounter a fulminating Old Man (Paul Dillon) who bursts in to share seminal memories of bad recesses in grade school and threatens to detonate a bomb that’s really cans of dog food.

The author describes Do You Feel Anger? as a “satire of gender politics and systems.” Alas, the patriarchal perversity depicted here is just your usual pigs on parade. The ultimate joke behind this bleak little one-act may well be on the audience. Maybe we’re the ones undergoing a sympathy test, if only by reacting against Nelson-Greenberg’s paralytics of passion.

For better or worse, the author refuses to judge her toxically un-disturbed characters, just unleash them. It’s enough for Nelson-Greenberg to end the 90 minutes in a literal limbo where a broken Sofia seems to succumb to the collective craziness of everything she couldn’t alter. What you take away from this play is the collateral damage of witnessing us at our worst.

photos by Fadeout Photo

Do You Feel Anger?
A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells Ave
Thurs–Sat at 7:30; Sat & Sun at 3
ends on March 15, 2020
for tickets, call 312.943.8722 or visit A Red Orchid

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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