One question begets another, and another in Mara Nelson-Greenberg’s smart and challenging new play “Do You Feel Anger?”
That is: How can one have empathy if one does not even know about or understand his or her own feelings? And, without such empathy, how can one even be able to comprehend reality?
These questions begin to spin out as Sofia (Tiffany Villarin) steps into a new job working with staff members of a debt collection agency to help them be more empathetic towards their clients. At one point, she says, “I’m going to turn this office into an empathy engine.”
But when she first arrives in a conference room, she finds Eva (Megan Hill), the only woman of the bunch, affable but acting bizarre. Always jumpy and on-guard, Eva spins stories about non-existent boyfriends to guard against advances from male co-workers. Eva smiles brightly — even when talking about the hostility that surrounds her.
Eva’s first manic bit of monologue marks this as a play that takes strong cues from Absurdist Theater. Nelson-Greenberg’s language twists like that found in the works of Eugene Ionesco’s “The Bald Soprano” and holds elements of office savagery encountered in David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross.”
While “Do You Feel Anger?” is billed as a comedy — misogyny, miscommunication and deception are all at play here.
There’s the smiling and smarmy boss, Jon (Dennis William Grimes), who speaks openly about his sexual appetite, his wish for this empathy training to be done with soon and his desire for Sofia to wear a dress rather than pants.
The script, director Margot Bordelon and actress Villarin all work together to show how Sofia, as an office newcomer, has to internalize some of Eva’s coping mechanisms to succeed at her job. “A woman’s work is never done” is the suggested and painful message folded into this black comedy.
Throughout the script, characters talk about the rules of the world — whether it is the world they grew up in or the one at the office. But overall, it’s a world where men make the rules. One man knows this and tries to soften the blow by working to make himself sympathetic in a ridiculous way.
“The safety of my employees is my top priority. Bottom line, over everything else, I really want to pretend that I’m a ‘good guy,’” Jon tells Sofia, before launching into his concern about the homeless. “They don’t have much food but they have to eat to survive.”
The deft writing throughout pulls at the ear and some characters are hilarious. Howie (Amir Wachterman) and Jordan (Bjorn DuPaty) are deliciously awful people — and both actors are fun to watch.
Nelson-Greenberg gives Howie one of the best lines of the play with, “I just don’t understand why someone else’s feelings should outweigh mine.”
Ultimately, “Do You Feel Anger?” offers clear ideas regarding the role of listening. But the ending unravels with a fantasy narrative that has its dose of charm — but as is, it doesn’t strongly justify its place in the story.
What makes this play worth seeing is the thought-provoking writing that reflects how one character’s ambitions in her professional life are keenly connected to her intimate life — and that idea it prescribes that real change starts with small steps on the profoundly personal level. Often, the first step is listening.
Elizabeth Kramer is on Twitter @arts_bureau and on Facebook at Elizabeth Kramer – Arts Writer.
Do You Feel Anger
March 9 – April 8, 2018.
This story has been corrected to reflect the correct dialogue from the play.