Here’s a setup that seems sure-fire comedy. A so-called “empathy coach” is hired to counsel the workers of a debt-collection agency. The imagination leaps right in.
Mara Nelson-Greenberg’s new play, “Do You Feel Anger?” — directed by Margot Bordelon at the Vineyard Theatre — wades into a world all its own, quite a bit darker than what we might imagine. That can be a good thing. The playwright is certainly in legitimate charge of her choices, with her right to surprise us intact.
And that’s not to say there’s no humor here, in this sterile conference room, conceived with a sly extra dimension by designer Laura Jellinek.
The workers at this contemporary firm are upbeat and exude an unsettling, shifty confidence. Are they brainwashed? Entitled? Just loony? Or what?
The coach, Sofia (Tiffany Villarin), a true-believer herself, wades in, with her talking points and a mission to do the right thing.
“Do You Feel Anger?” has an affinity to the great detective films. Think of Bogart, and solving the crime. Here Sofia is on her own crusade, up against a pack of tough guys. She fears that all is not jake.
There’s also a sorry moll, Eva, dashing around, to kick off Sofia’s suspicions and sympathy.
Any shadows of noir get blasted away by the madcap pivots of the characters, and the creative disarray of tone and behaviors. We wonder what will these folks say next, and how will Sofia keep up?
Her efforts at team-building meet significant challenges from the boss (Greg Keller), a pair of office galoots (Ugo Chukwu and Justin Long), and the aforementioned Eva (Megan Hill), who is trying her best while holding on to shreds.
Empathy is another matter. There are missing links galore.
The cast is energetic and outstanding, and the action clips along as director Margot Bordelon ensures that a brisk clarity is the key to the curious fractured world unfolding here. There’s a down-the-rabbit-hole aspect as Sofia discovers that logic and common sense — along with respect and boundaries — just might be her own illusory code. This oddball spirit supports both absurd humor and a gathering sense of dread.
Sofia’s workplace challenge is counterbalanced by a mother-daughter subplot which gives “Do You Feel Anger?” a running narrative in the wider world, where traditional bonds apply. Like the intrusion of a raving outsider (Tom Aulino), this tack diverts from the increasing tension within the conference room, one with a contemporary resonance, exemplified by the clueless herd mentality of the male characters.
There’s an ironic undercurrent in Sofia’s response to her mother’s needs, although her sense of sisterhood drives her on into a deeper recess in this upturned version of the workplace.
The play then leaps ahead with a daring jolt that is far more immediate and vital than any office-attitude upgrade.
The author straddles these extremes, and this dynamic production accommodates them, in a bold allegory of a question for justice long overdue.