When feeling dissatisfaction with a play you’re encountering for the first time, it isn’t always easy to tell whether the fault lies with the writing or the production. I left “Do You Feel Anger?” at the Atwater Village Theatre splitting the difference.
Mara Nelson-Greenberg’s 2018 wild and weird comedy, now receiving its West Coast premiere in a Circle X Theatre Co. production directed by Halena Kays, has a tasty premise. Sofia (Paula Rebelo), an empathy coach, has been called in to reform one of the most toxic workplaces imaginable.
The guys who work at this debt collection agency are under the impression that they’re fun to be around. But the women who have to share office space with them can’t help feeling that their lives are in danger.
Smiling inanely through her shell shock, Eva (Tasha Ames) doesn’t understand why she keeps getting mugged on the job even after she sent a company-wide email begging the perpetrator(s) to stop. She advises Sofia not to let the men know that she’s single, otherwise they’ll all be hitting on her. And by hitting, she seems to mean both unwarranted advances and physical violence.
Jon (Casey Smith), the bro in charge of the department, assures Sofia that the corporate environment is completely normal. “We’re like one little family,” he says, “love and familial abuse and decades of bubbling resentment and hugging and ongoing power struggles and all!”
Two male employees most in need of empathy training stalk the conference room like caged predators. One introduces himself with the line, “I’m Jordan. It’s a pleasure for you to meet me.” The other simply says, “I’m Howie. I have a terrible temper.”
Sofia quickly discovers that the problem is going to take more than a few sensitivity exercises. Divided by a common language, the sexes can’t even come to agreement on the definition of basic nouns.
When Sofia points out to Jon that the women’s room lacks a place to dispose of tampons, he needs to make a call to find out what a period is. (The misogynistic meltdown that ensues when he finds out is one of the production’s strangest set pieces.) Jordan (Napoleon Tavale) and Howie (Rich Liccardo) are under the assumption that empathy refers to a bird.
It’s a losing game trying to rehabilitate these walking ids, as Eva knows only too well. Her defense has been to adopt a moronic façade. But every now and again she’s capable of blinding clarity, as when she calls Sofia out for betraying her own principles.
Poor Sofia, unable to reach the men with her visual aids and example of kindness, eventually tries to appease them. She starts wearing pink and indulging their every whim. Before she knows it, Stockholm syndrome has set in.
The characters in “Do You Feel Anger?” are magnified to neo-absurdist extremes, but the play never quite attains the necessary farcical cruising speed. Comedy of this outlandish sort needs acceleration, but Nelson-Greenberg keeps taking her foot off the gas.
Voice messages from Sofia’s mother (Rose Portillo) interrupt the office scenes with reports about egregious male behavior at home. Clearly the issue isn’t confined to corporate America, but the phone scenes tonally belong to another play.
Additional characters spring up seemingly out of nowhere, letting more air out of the tires. A major set change at the end feel like a dramatic cop-out.
The actors are left to their own devices under Kays’ uncertain direction. The prospect of a delirious lampoon fizzles into an overextended “Saturday Night Live” sketch.
Liccardo’s Howie and Tavale’s Jordan have trouble sustaining the joke of their characters. With his shock of spiky hair and adrenaline rushes, Smith turns a corporate villain into a lunatic new-wave frontman.
After an awkward start, Ames finds moments of daft life in nutty Eva, but the performance is as askew as the writing. Rebelo is compellingly real as Sofia. But she increasingly seems like she has wandered into the wrong genre.
Nelson-Greenberg wants to have her zany satire and her character-centered comedy too. The play is at cross-purposes with itself, but perhaps that is the point. These women’s workplace situation would be laughable were it not so damn cruel and sad.
‘Do You Feel Anger?’
Where: Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Feb. 25
Contact: www.circlextheatre.org or (323) 644-1929
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes