Think you have a tough and thankless job? Consider Sofia (Juliet Moniz). She’s just been hired as an empathy coach at a debt-collection call center, in Mara Nelson-Greenberg’s dark comedy “Do You Feel Anger,” onstage now at The Theater Project.
Sofia has her work cut out for her. The office’s sole female employee, Eva (Savannah Irish) undergoes regular “muggings” in the break room.
Manager Jon (David Bliss) and male employees Jordan (Lucious K. Fox) and Howie (Jared Mongeau) frequently declaim their love for “blowjobs without reciprocation,” draw pictures of Eva in a sexualized joke called a “piss chart” and are pretty sure that empathy is a kind of bird.
Eva advises Sophia to get a boyfriend while she’s working here. “I wouldn’t want you to end up like me,” she says, smiling with jarring, shell-shocked brightness. “Like, in danger.”
So, getting these guys to empathize with debtors is the least of it, in “Do You Feel Anger,” a surreal and terrifying fever-dream about toxic masculinity and misogyny, as well as the hazards involved in trying to mitigate them. Christopher Price directs a sharp, smart, laser-focused ensemble in The Theater Project’s first professional production since the pandemic. It’s an audacious and uncomfortably insightful show, startling in both its nuance and its blunt force. Be advised that the show contains depictions of sexual harassment and assault and (if this weren’t already obvious) is meant for adults.
Outside of work, Sofia has her own problems. The show opens with a voicemail from her mother (voiced by Abbie Dufrene), after an awful revelation that her father has, insensitively, shared via email. Ongoing, unanswered voicemails from her mom pose a quiet contrast between Sofia’s own behaviors and those she preaches, while also breaking up the gonzo intensity of the empathy training.
Those training sessions, held in a beige and putty-colored conference room with drawn curtains, are alternately hilarious and horrifying. Nelson-Greenberg’s barbed script tilts swiftly from the banal to the bizarro, shifts that the cast pulls off with brio. We move from the more routine misogynist slights (Jon interrupts Sofia’s self-introduction to suggest she introduce herself) to absurdist hyperbole (Howie reverts to angry toddlerdom and yells “Baby says no!”). At one point Eva changes the subject to announce, with eerie, desperate calculation, “I ate my sister in the uterus.”
Supporting this turbulence, the ensemble’s physical work is deft and assured. Jon carries himself with middle-management self-importance and a faux gentility that contrasts with what comes out of his mouth. In Fox’s hands, Jordan, who considers himself a poet, rises into poses of orator grandeur before slouching back into middle-school snickering with Howie. Mongeau imbues Howie’s dysfunction with petulant eyerolls, then violent pacing and wall-punching, and when he sucks his thumb or collapses to a near-fetal position, it feels like an assault.
As for Sofia, trying so hard to get through to them, Moniz gives her first an unflappably professional solidity. Then she shows us Sofia’s subtle and not-so-subtle physical (and other) adaptations, her fluttering and pouting, as she assimilates the men’s expectations of femininity as a trade-off for reaching them. The insidious effects of her strategy are difficult to watch.
And positively wrenching to watch is Irish’s extraordinary Eva. Irish lets us see just how internalized Eva’s trauma and fear are, how viscerally alert she is to every shift in the men’s conversation. In her eyes and bearing we watch her register and react to the room, flickering between shame, relief, and terror; and we watch her constantly shifting performance, an act internalized to keep herself safe.
At times, this play is a lot. We laugh at the men’s absurdity, then feel our breath suddenly robbed by their ugliness, like we’ve been shoved or worse. And to sustain some of Nelson-Greenberg’s provocations asks a lot of an ensemble. I initially thought some of the show’s more brazen scenes could stand some modulation. Then again, the very point of hearing “I love blowjobs without reciprocation” articulated aloud, say, eight or ten times in a row, is to be bombarded beyond logic or patience. It’s a pointed choice and a gamble, but given the larger system of the play’s insights, I think Nelson-Greenberg earns it.
Those insights include a nuanced understanding of how some men, from a young age, convert vulnerable emotions to anger or suppress them completely. (An especially revelatory monologue on this comes from an old man, in an ace performance by James McGee Herrera.)
In a thrilling, devastating crux scene in which Jordan and Howie drill down to their childhoods, we’re drawn to empathize with the child while still being repelled by the monster the man has become.
But most trenchant is the show’s understanding of how all of this affects women, as Sofia betrays her own ideals by ingratiating herself with Jon; as Eva withstands unspeakable post-traumatic suffering so that Jordan and Howie can “solve empathy.” In the Theater Project’s nervy, keen-edged production, “Do You Feel Anger” makes horrifyingly clear what it can cost women when they’re the ones who have to teach men how to be human.
Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.