We’re only halfway through the 42nd annual Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre, but we now have an easy contender for “most talked about play of the festival.”
“Do You Feel Anger?” by Mara Nelson-Greenberg, a play about an empathy coach assigned to a debt collections agency, is polarizing, complicated, at times confusing but ultimately very worthy of every conversation it provokes.
Sofia (the very talented Tiffany Villarin) believes she is a natural at her job as an empathy coach, but even early on we see that she may have an inflated sense of just how well she understands and shares the feelings of others. She’s been assigned to work with the employees of a collection agency because of “all the lawsuits.”
One coworker, Janie (Lisa Tejero, who also does double duty as Sofia’s mom), has disappeared to the bathroom and never returned, her presence marked only by her left-behind favorite cardigan and coffee mug at the conference room table.
The seemingly manic Eva (Megan Hill) reports that “someone keeps mugging” her in the office.
Jordan (Bjorn DuPaty) and Howie (Amir Wachterman) are the living embodiments of dude-bros who troll in the comments section. Jordan perceives himself as a #notallmen good guy (“Nice guys always finish last,” he laments).
Howie has rage issues. Jon (Dennis William Grimes) is the clueless, insulting misogynist boss.
Sofia is supposed to teach these workers about having empathy for the people whose debts they are collecting. But empathy and the emotions behind it might as well be a foreign language to the male coworkers (indeed, they mispronounce the names of many of the emotions Sofia is trying to teach them about).
Howie voices the callousness of the group: “I don’t understand why someone else’s emotions should outweigh mine.” The debtors don’t deserve the work it would take for him to empathize with them; they brought their problems on themselves.
If you don’t have a stomach for absurdism, this is not a play for you. Likewise if you frequently pepper your online postings with words like “snowflakes” or “libtards.” Do you think women should smile more? Wear more dresses? Yeah, this play is not for you.
The relevance of this play in 2018 is searing — and during Women’s History Month, to boot. “Do You Feel Anger?,” at its core, is about the emotional labor women have to put in to protect male feelings. If you’re someone who’s still unclear what women mean when they talk about “toxic masculinity,” this play may help you figure it out.
Not only was the play about empathy — or lack thereof — as a friend pointed out, there were moments in the play where just about every woman in the audience winced or gasped simultaneously.
But as I said, this play is complicated. This is no simple generalization that posits that all men are bad and incapable of reformation, and all women are good. Our empathy expert gets lost along the way and throws another woman under the bus, hard.
The conclusion of the play still has me thinking. Some friends and I debated the ending and “what it all means” after the play. One friend overheard in the women’s room (ironic because the play ends in the women’s room) that the ending used to be totally different, and I wonder if I would have liked that one better.
Subplots including Sofia’s mother and Louisville’s own phenomenal Jon Huffman as Old Man didn’t feel ancillary to the plot, except to illustrate that the idea that men can feel entitled to women’s agency is not just a young man’s game.
Director Margot Bordelon is new to Actors Theatre, and what a debut to make! Whether or not this play is your cup of tea, kudos to Actors for taking risks like this. Likewise, at the halfway mark of the festival, kudos to them, too, for such diverse casting of the first three plays.
“Do You Feel Anger?” continues through April 8. Tickets start at $25.