In the last few months, I’ve seen a lot of plays about racism, sexual identity, immigration, crime, anger and angst. So it was a nice change of pace to see Do You Feel Anger? at A Red Orchid Theatre because it’s about nothing that will keep you awake at night. It also seems to reach too hard to be funny. Jess McLeod directs, with script by Mara Nelson-Greenberg.
Sofia (Emjoy Gavino) arrives at a corporate office to coach employees in an “empathy workshop” that will run for a month or more. You may never have heard of that sort of workshop but after you meet the employees, you’ll agree they need one. The company is a credit collection agency and the people who make the calls are not exactly sympathetic to the debtors’ problems. They’re rude and clueless, in fact—as is their manager, Jon (Lawrence Grimm). The conversation that ensues when Sofia asks Jon to do something about the lack of tampons in the women’s restroom is silly and typical of the whole play. (Why would a consultant report that problem to a senior executive? Don’t bother asking.)
Everyone at the company simply opens their mouths and says whatever they’re thinking. Or not thinking. The men are horny and say so. Howie (Levi Holloway) and Jordan (Bernard Gilbert) don’t hesitate to express their interests in hookups with Sofia and with Eva (Sadieh Rifai), the lone and lonely female. Eva constantly talks about her boyfriends, past and present, real and imaginary. No topic is out of bounds in this office.
Sofia tries stubbornly to engage her charges in discussions and exercises to improve their empathy and ability to deal with the debtors they call. Jon doesn’t help. Early in the long process, he asks Sofia what empathy is. (Sofia writes the definition on the white board… it’s about understanding how others feel, she writes.) The employees can’t define empathy either. One says that it’s a bird.
The only real human connection in the play is Sofia’s phone conversation with or voice mail messages from her mother (Jennifer Jelsema), who is sad and trying to rebuild her life after learning that her husband and Sofia’s father has left her to be with his formerly secret second family.
Playwright Nelson-Greenberg’s script offers some accurate office insights, although the neanderthal humor is overdone. Her play is Theater of the Absurd, 21st century version. There are no rhinoceroses or parents living in trash bins. It’s her characters themselves who are absurd—and awful.
Gavino and Grimm, both solid Chicago performers, show their talents as comic actors here, although both have played more nuanced and interesting roles recently. (Gavino in Kentucky and Grimm in Hannah and Martin.) Sadieh Rifai’s performance is anguished and funny.
Jeffrey Kmiec’s set design is basic office white and fitted with two long tables and chairs on wheels. Stephanie Cluggish’s colorful costumes are set off well against the white and are especially fine for Sofia and Eva, who appear in different outfits in every scene. And this is the first tine I have seen a credit for blood design (it’s by Karen Kawa). Lighting design is by Mike Durst and Becca Jeffords with sound design by Elenna Sindler. Jeffrey Levin is sound consultant.
Do You Feel Anger? continues through March 15 at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells St. Tickets are $30-$40 for performances Thursday-Sunday.