A New Comedy About Harassment at a Debt Collection Agency Asks, Do You Feel Anger?
Apparently, "empathy coach" is a real job. In our absurd age, jittery HR departments can hire a consultant to teach workers how to discern and share human emotions. Perhaps that explains the neo-absurdist tone of Mara Nelson-Greenberg's Do You Feel Anger?, about an empathy coach hired to conduct several sessions with employees at a debt collection agency. Now playing at Vineyard Theatre, this comedy wrings laughter out of a dismal situation — one that, despite Nelson-Greenberg's heightened style, we recognize as our own.
That style mostly consists of having characters say exactly what they mean while maintaining the passive-aggressive tone that is ubiquitous in American offices — leading to hilarious results. "You're going to love it here," Eva (Megan Hill) tells Sofia (Tiffany Villarin) on her first day, cheerily adding, "I know you hear 'debt collection agency,' and you think everyone in this office must be really mean, but you're right. 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."
The head office has contracted Sofia to teach these debt collectors some much-needed empathy. Howie (Justin Long) has resorted to swearing at the debtors and threatening them with violence, while Jordan (Ugo Chukwu) seems incapable of listening to a word that is said to him. Both men brazenly hit on Sofia, but not Eva since she started dating an elderly man named Rafalgore (Tom Aulino) in order to deflect their advances. Jon (a smarmy Greg Keller) manages the office, and he wants Sofia to sign the form saying the office is empathy-certified ASAP. He makes his priorities clear: "Bottom line, over everything else, I really want to pretend that I'm a 'good guy.'"
Predictably, the sessions go poorly, with the men oscillating between hostility and horniness. Eva smiles for dear life, an apology ready at her side like a revolver. Through her dark humor, Nelson-Greenberg offers trenchant observations about the flattening of the male emotional range, a process that begins in childhood and leads to adult men responding to humiliation with violence (since crying is not an option). Do You Feel Anger? exudes skepticism that such emotional mutilation can ever been remedied by a consultant in a metrics-driven business environment.
With their overgrown toddler routines, the male actors give (barely) exaggerated performances of real men throwing temper tantrums. This is especially true of Long's wall-slamming, face-reddening performance as Howie. This play would certainly feel unabashedly misandrist if it weren't for Hill's manic portrayal of Eva, who is just as frighteningly damaged as the men (although one suspects she got that way as a defense mechanism).
Although Villarin stealthily portrays Sofia as an interdimensional invader from our totally normal universe, we wonder why this arch-empath cannot be bothered to return a phone call from her clearly distraught mother (a heartbreaking Jeanne Sakata). Sofia's eventual betrayal of her principles in the name of pragmatism shows that any one of us can surrender to a rotten status quo. In fact, we mostly do.
Through bold performances and specific design, director Margot Bordelon maintains the comical tone of Nelson-Greenberg's script without sacrificing any of its seriousness. We immediately recognize the location from Laura Jellinek's joyless conference room set. Audience members are likely to spot items from their own office wardrobe in Emilio Sosa's costumes. But from this realistic design springs a fantastic, terrifying world: As we enter the theater, we notice a burgundy cardigan hanging over the back of a chair next to an unclaimed coffee mug. The spot remains unoccupied for the duration of the play, seemingly reserved for the Prophet Elijah. This, we are told, was the seat of Janie, who popped off to the bathroom several days ago and hasn't been seen since.
Revealed in a dramatic set change, that restroom opens before us like a temple in turquoise tile. The depiction of the women's restroom as man-free sanctuary is a notable choice as we push toward gender-neutral bathrooms (a common sight off-Broadway). Nelson-Greenberg doesn't explicitly endorse such gender-segregated spaces, but she does show us all the reasons why some women jealously guard them. Do You Feel Anger? is a leading question for women in the workforce. Nelson-Greenberg knows they don't just feel anger, but rage.