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Do You Feel Anger?

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Tiffany Villarin, Megan Hill                                 Photo: Carol Rosegg


Do You Feel Anger?


                 By Fern Siegel


The title is clearly a rhetorical question, but playwright Mara-Nelson-Greenberg posits it less as a response to abuse, and more to emphasize, however surreal, the wacky mind-set of the abuser.


And it’s billed as a comedy.


The play, now at the Vineyard, opens with a middle-aged woman (Jeanne Sakata) desperately trying to reach daughter Sofia (Tiffany Villarin), her “little spider.” (It’s clear, if we sustain the simile, Sofia will catch no one in her sticky web.)


Mom worries her daughter is grappling with family turmoil — and a tough new job.


Sofia is an empathy coach hired to educate a group of menacing misfits at a debt-collection company. They don’t see the problem with anger; in fact, the men view her as another human-resources annoyance.


Conversely, Eva’s (Megan Hill) relentless cheerfulness at the meeting barely masks her larger worry. She is forever getting “mugged” at work. Rather than outrage, Sofia tries to understand the men’s’ intransigence; she empathizes with them, rather than Eva.


But the absurdity — the strange nonsensical remarks the dopey trio — Jon (Greg Keller), Howie (Justin Long) and Jordan (Ugo CHukwu)— spout, don’t click. Statements such as “empathy is a bird” or “maternity leave means women can leave the office when they give birth” fall flat.


If the playwright’s point is that women — and society — are conditioned to routinely dismiss bad behavior from men, her choice of expression doesn’t indict. Sadly, it acts as apologist.


Worse, too many audience members laugh at Eva’s distress, even at a painful scene. Possibly, they’ve learned, via osmosis, about Sofia’s empathy tropes. She tries to validate male rage, calling it a strategy to help them see the error of their ways, rather than decry female suffering.


(Bigger question: Why is no one angry about Eva’s charges?)


Sofia’s ploy is ineffective; it just leaves Eva, and the mysterious Jane, rumored to be holed up in the bathroom, to fend for themselves. As for Sofia’s touted empathy — she has none for her caring, neglected mother or her female colleagues. When she tells Eva she “has her back,” it’s a signal, like Susan Collins voting for Brett Kavanaugh, that she doesn’t.


So where is the comedy in this comedy billing?


The absurdist format can be effective, and in more skillful hands, it could be utilized to great effect. One of the reasons the “SNL” sketches of Donald Trump prove so potent is they smartly underscore the absurdity of what he says — and by extension — the great damage such pronouncements and policies will produce.


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Ugo CHukwu, Megan Hill, Justin Long  Photo: Carol Rosegg


It’s not enough to have men say stupid things and women pacify them to be funny. Otherwise, our bar for comedy has sunk too low. Skilled writers can expose hypocrisy and cruelty and get laughs from it. Even broad comedians like Mel Brooks have done it to great effect.


Here, Maya Nelson-Greenberg has the benefit of a capable cast, directed by Margot Bordelon, and a well-known venue to highlight critical points. Yes, there are some dramatic moments, but the problem is they seem to exist in a different play.


When Sofia realizes her own myopia — she’d cut the women deeply and they bleed — get it? — it’s too late. Women suffer; men endure. We don’t need Nelson-Greenberg to tell us that. We only have to look to the Oval Office.


Vineyard Theater, 108 East 15 St., Through April 27

Running time: 90 minutes