by Elana Luo
Right from the first unsettling anecdote about a boyfriend who’s a serial killer, Mara Nelson-Greenberg’s Do You Feel Anger grabs you by the throat. Or ear. The play itself hounds an empathy coach who is assigned to teach at a debt collection agency, where the two sole emotions that the male employees can name are hunger and “horn” (horniness). Meanwhile, the only woman at the agency scampers around furtively, terrified of her male colleagues. As the training ekes along, one might begin to wonder exactly how much compassion there is to go around, not only in the office.
The play upsets the typical office drama in favor of dollop after dollop of absurdism. As a director, I figured the key to putting together this piece would be to gather a cast and crew willing to go as far as Nelson-Greenberg’s extremes. Some people say 80-90% of directing is casting, and I imagine that this play was no exception.
I spoke with Director Halena Kays, who confirmed that casting and collaboration were indeed key to putting the production together. Many of the characters are challenging and incredibly outré, demanding their actors to do and say outlandish things with nonchalance and whip-sharp comedic timing. The cast uniformly rises to the task, which I suspect is the result of dozens of rehearsals of exploring just how far one must push to meet a character (and at times in this play, caricature).
Kays saw the world premiere at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in 2018, and experiencing the play for the first time, she was impressed with Nelson-Greenberg’s bravery in writing about a difficult issue and managing to turn it into a comedy. Kays tells me that during rehearsals, the cast somehow managed to find humanity and complexity in the monstrous characters, creating a beautiful, deeply unfunny play that left the realm of comedy. So, they pulled back. But going so far may have helped them understand where those characters stood as antagonists, resulting in the ridiculous but dangerous performances of the final production.
This story is one that could work no where else other than the stage, as the audience leans forward and recoils as the stage crackles with danger and surprises. You know how every sentence will end…exactly none of the time. The seemingly simple office setting turns into a flaming, molding brawling ground—or breeding ground. Who knows the difference? Certainly not these debt collectors.
I laughed, nervously and delightedly, throughout, and positively cried at the end. Go see this if you have a beating heart. And when it’s through, perhaps you too will feel a little angered, or saddened, or entertained, or hungry.
“Do You Feel Anger” runs through February 25 at Circle X Theatre. For tickets and information, visit circlextheatre.org