‘Do You Feel Anger?’ at Theater Alliance takes on anti-woman workplace

An absurdist, dark comedy sendup of toxicity on the job.

The premise of Do You Feel Anger? sounds promising. Take an office workplace that’s totally toxic to women, do an absurdist sendup of it, and center the story on a female professional empathy coach who’s hired to get the men to behave less like assholes. The playwright,  Mara Nelson-Greenberg, also had the ingenious idea to make the office a debt-collection agency that’s being sued because male staffers phoning delinquent borrowers have been threatening them with violence. Plus there’s a female staffer who keeps getting mugged in the halls, and there used to be one other female staffer, Janie, who tried to set fire to the office then one day went to the women’s room and never returned. In other words, make the comedy dark. Really dark. Scarey dark. But dry and droll. Also surreal and satirical. And let’s see how long the levity lasts.

The level of humor at the beginning is enjoyably off-the-wall, thanks largely to Marissa Liotta’s utterly delightful performance as the scatterbrained Eva, the serial mugging victim. In desperation, Eva has fabricated a boyfriend to keep from being hit on. She can’t remember his name. Nervously shriek-giggling, fluttering about the stage, and constantly losing her runaway train of thought, Eva can barely keep it together. The character as played by this actor is so appealing that she could anchor her own play.

Maria Simpkins as Sofia, Shaq Stewart as Howie, Nicklas Aliff as Jordan in ‘Do You Feel Anger?’ Photo by Manaf Azzam.

In the first scene, Eva meets Sofia, the new empathy coach, portrayed with brisk nuance by Maria Simpkins, who can shift from officiousness to sympatheticness to uneasiness and alarm in an instant. Eva tries to warn Sofia about how hostile this environment is and urges Sofia to make up a phony beau too so as not to be in danger. Little does Sofia know that her chipper conciliatory demeanor and practiced pedagogical patience are going to be tested to the breaking point.

We are in a utilitarian gray-on-gray conference room, smartly designed by Emily Lotz, under the glare of fluorescent ceiling fixtures, part of Dylan Uremovich’s accomplished lighting design, and on the wall can be seen the grunge of recent fire damage. We’ve been treated to a recorded preshow announcement advising us cheerfully that the play contains “not-so-subtle misogyny,” and we’ve heard the blip-beeping of office machines, part of Toisin Olufolabi’s evocative sound design.

Enter Jon, the boss who hired Sofia, a man whose incompetence and ignorance, in James Whalen’s wittily witless performance, are laughable if not galling. He tries to coach Sofia in how to do the job she already knows how to do and tells her to wear a dress instead of the slacks she has on. He cares about keeping up his “good guy persona.” He doesn’t know what a period and a tampon are.

Shaq Stewart as Howie, Nicklas Aliff as Jordan, Maria Simpkins as Sofia, and Marissa Liotta as Eva in ‘Do You Feel Anger?’ Photo by Manaf Azzam.

Next Sofia is introduced to Howie and Jordan, two boorish and horny bruhs with zero social skills. They’re enamored of the phrase “blowjobs without reciprocation,” which they repeat way more than enough times. Jordan fancies himself a poet (he’s not), and Nicklas Aliff conveys well the guy’s grandiosity. Howie has the temperament of a two-year-old, and Shaq Stewart captures well the guy’s petulant sulks. In Aliff and Stewart’s inventive physicality and interplay, Jordan and Howie become like the Tweedledee and Tweedledum of office toxicity, boy buffoons who share misogynist jests to shore up their bond.

Maria Simpkins as Sofia, Shaq Stewart as Howie, Nicklas Aliff as Jordan, and James Whalen as Jon in ‘Do You Feel Anger?’ Photo by Manaf Azzam.

Facing certain failure in her reeducation mission, Sofia capitulates. She puts on a dress (a striking pink sheath by costume designer Kiana Vincenty) and turns coy seductress. We are to understand that she then makes modicum progress: the bruhs and the boss become entry-level emotionally literate. But the process is a slog, the strain on Sofia shows, and we feel it too.

Midway, a very old bearded man hobbles in and threatens to blow the place up. He may or may not be Eva’s ex-boyfriend. Miscast in the role is Melissa Carter (whose other work in the play, as Sophia’s mother and Janie, is fine). And he has an interminable monologue about being left out that stops the show not in a good way.

Near the end is a spectacularly surreal sound-scenic-and-lighting reveal (a technical feat directed Jonathan Dahm Robertson), and it totally confounded me. I had no idea what was going on or why.

I was also puzzled that a workplace so hostile to women was depicted as free of racism. There is not a word or mention in the script that references race. Yet the casting notes by the playwright, who is white, specify that certain characters should be played by people of color (and this production follows her wishes):

[T]his is a play about power, violence, and complicity. With that in mind re: your casting decisions, please be mindful of not perpetuating insidious stereotypes, and please be aware of what story you are telling based on the actors you cast in each role.

So I was stumped. I could not figure out how this misogyny-drenched but strangely racism-exempt story related to Theater Alliance’s mission and exemplary history of making antiracist theater.

Director Kelly Colburn had the unenviable challenge of maintaining the absurdist tone of this script: how to keep the dark comedy funny, or at least as engrossing as watching a dumpster fire might be. There was a lot to contend with.

At the conference table where Sofia conducts her exasperatingly futile trainings is a chair kept empty where Janie, the disappeared woman, used to sit, as evidenced by the sweater she left behind and the now-moldy cup of coffee she was drinking. The playwright plunks that possible femicide into what aspires to be a comedy about women’s experience in the workplace, and over the course of the play, a tension builds between what is appalling and what wants to be amusing. Eventually the appalling wins. The sendup gets belabored and the humor expires.

“You can’t blame someone for what they feel,” says Jon at one point, and that’s kind of the problem here, because in the end Do You Feel Anger? feels numbing.

Do You Feel Anger? plays through June 11, 2022, presented by Theater Alliance performing at the Anacostia Playhouse, 2020 Shannon Place SE, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets ($40; $30 student, senior, military) online.

The program for Do You Feel Anger? is online here.

COVID Safety: Anacostia Playhouse, where Theater Alliance performs, requires proof of vaccination or proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken 48 hours before performance start time. Masks will be required for audience members except when eating or drinking. For more information, click here.

Do You Feel Anger?
By Mara Nelson-Greenberg
Directed by Kelly Colburn

Maria Simpkins: Sofia
Nicklas Aliff: Jordan
Melissa Carter: Mom/Janie/Old Man
Marissa Liotta: Eva
Shaq Stewart: Howie
James Whalen: Jon

Scenic Design: Emily Lotz
Lighting Design: Dylan Uremovich
Sound Design: Toisin Olufolabi
Costume Design: Kiana Vincenty
Projections Design: Deja Chavon Collins
Properties Design: Amy Kellett
Technical Direction: Jonathan Dahm Robertson
Stage Manager: Genny Ceperley
Assistant Director: Lisa Danielle Buch
Assistant Stage Manager: Becca Anderson
Production Manager: Dominique Douglas Hendricks

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John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg is executive editor of DC Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg. Member, American Theatre Critics Association.


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