It’s difficult to know exactly where our sympathy is supposed to be directed in the early scenes of Mara Nelson-Greenberg’s provocative new play. “Do You Feel Anger?” opened Tuesday at the Vineyard Theatre, and in those opening moments set in an office conference room, it’s clear that outsider Sofia (Tiffany Villarin) is the only normal, halfway relatable person at this debt collection agency.
The boss Jon (Greg Keller) and the three employees we meet — Eva (Megan Hill), Jordan (Ugo Chukwu) and Howie (Justin Long) — speak English but in a kind of secret code. Plus, they’re debt collectors. Or, as Eva tells Sofia on her first day at the agency, “You’re going to love it here. I know you hear ‘debt collection agency,’ and you think everyone in this office must be really mean, but you’re right.”
The wide-eyed Hill is so hyper and relentlessly upbeat that our comprehension of what she just said is very delayed. And it’s this mercurial subversion of our expectations that lies at the core of Nelson-Greenberg’s anarchic humor, as well as Margot Bordelon’s loopy direction of her talented cast. Everybody’s playing on the same very wrinkled page (except for Villarin’s out-of-the-office-loop Sofia). Even Laura Jellinek’s set, Emilio Sosa’s costumes and Marie Yokoyama’s lighting deliver their own surprises.
Eva’s warning to Sofia is alarming, but considering the source, we can’t take it seriously — at least, not in the beginning. Even when Eva warns that the men in the office will hit on Sofia, the words are so contradictory, the emotions so unfiltered, that Eva appears to be joking. (But sure enough, the three men in the office hit on Sofia sometime before “hello.”)
Villarin plays the “straight man” here, setting up all the gags that the four alpha comics around her detonate with unerring precision, much to Sofia’s bewilderment. And ours. What’s even more disturbing than Sofia’s adeptness at learning the wacky logic of their office-speak is that we also begin to make sense of it.
What keeps this off-kilter seesaw of personalities from completing turning against the four office loons is Sofia’s mother (Jeanne Sakata). She repeatedly makes desperate phone calls to her daughter, whom she calls “my little spider.” Mom simply wants to know how her long-lost daughter is doing.
And then there’s Sofia’s job. She doesn’t work for the debt collection agency, rather she’s an outside counselor hired for a week or two to give seminars on… empathy.
Anyone who has ever worked for a large company knows the sheer hell that the human resources department can create with its endless seminars, tests and surveys. Villarin’s performance epitomizes that politically correct, overly measured and totally infuriating counselor who is a recurring black hole in the middle of your work day.
Chukwu, Keller and Long carry the office-jerk thing to absurd levels. It’s an act that could wear thin fast but doesn’t thanks to their light helium-induced charm and the boss telling Sofia things like, “Your office told me about the doctors you helped, who had forgotten that humans weren’t objects” or “Maternity leave means women can leave the office when they give birth.”
This blatant crassness is so bouncy it’s infectious. And when the men think empathy is a bird, it’s as much a put-down of the whole human resources process than sheer ignorance. But it is ignorance (and something more) in the end.
To go into further detail here would spoil the fun of experiencing “Do You Feel Anger?” in the theater. Nelson-Greenberg makes her New York debut with this wild comedy. Hers is an offbeat, novel, wonderful voice. Can’t wait to hear what she tells us next.