REVIEWS: “Days of Rage” and “Good Grief”
Two world premiere productions of new plays opened Off-Broadway last night, each offering their characters a reflection on their younger selves and their emotional development, conceptions of love, and visions for the future. Here is a roundup look at Second Stage’s “Days of Rage” and the Vineyard Theatre’s “Good Grief”:
“Days of Rage” (New Play, Second Stage): as the book writer of “Dear Evan Hansen” and playwright of “If I Forget”, Steven Levenson displayed a remarkable skill for smartly tackling contemporary issues with trenchant precision and economy. However, his latest work, “Days of Rage”, is a disappointing and confusing play. Set in and around an old house (an impressive, rolling two story cross-section set by Louisa Thompson) in Ithaca, New York in October 1969, the story concerns a motley quartet of white radicals, college dropouts who live in their own mini-collective (important personal decisions requiring a group vote), as they put their lives on hold to somewhat clumsily organize for a mass protest in Chicago against the war in Vietnam, which ends up being a little noticed drop in the bucket that, as a coda explains, marked a defining moment in their lives. Along the way, creeping paranoia of government surveillance takes siege, jealousies and insecurities come to the fore, and a clash of theory (boy, they have a lot of it) versus reality (not so much) is exposed. It is hard not to have sympathy for these characters, stuck, as they are, amid the terror of that awful war and the fast-moving social revolutions of the late 1960s—unsure, much like us, if they are at an end or a beginning—but Mr. Levenson’s play, under director Trip Cullman, too often renders its characters as cloying cartoons, painfully lacking in self-awareness and overflowing with self-righteousness. Nothing about the play reads as authentically capturing the spirit of the time, and the tone is mostly satire. I do not understand the purpose behind lampooning anti-war activists in a play, which I struggle to believe was Mr. Levenson’s intention, but is undoubtedly the effect of this production. We have enough days of rage in our present to visit with; skip these ones from the past. Opened October 30th; runs through November 25th at the Tony Kiser Theater. Discount Tickets.
“Good Grief” (New Play, Vineyard Theatre) (Critic’s Pick!): while Charlie Brown’s exasperation might come to mind upon hearing the title, Ngozi Anyanwu (“The Homecoming Queen”)’s new play, “Good Grief”, is about a woman navigating and negotiating the process of grief in the aftermath of losing a beloved friend. A double gift, Ms. Anyawu, whose writing is achingly beautiful and original, also stars as Nkechi, the daughter of two Nigerian immigrants in a suburban Bucks County, Pennsylvania town. The story is loosely inspired by Ms. Anyawu’s own coming-of-age, offering a stirring and profound personal meditation on memory, love, and grief that crosses time and space from 1992 to 2005 in a lyrical series of duet scenes between Nkechi and a constellation of key people in her life: her childhood friend and lifelong love, MJ (Ian Quinlan), described (quite prophetically) as an “ethnic James Dean”; her playful younger “Bro” (Nnamdi Asomugha); her immigrant parents, Papa (Oberon K.A. Adjepong) and NeNe (Patrice Johnson Chevannes); and an out-of-reach childhood crush and neighbor turned new romantic interest, JD (Hunter Parrish). This is the kind of free-flowing, deeply meaningful play that you feel before you necessarily understand—a treat, amid a sea of more literal, formulaic, and straightforward offerings, that left me crying for reasons I could not easily articulate. It is a play about grief, but it is not sad. My tears were tears of recognition—of the universally human experience that Nkechi has, and, more broadly, of the beauty of life itself. Director Awoye Timpo’s production leans into the mythic and celestial themes addressed throughout the play, making for a kaleidoscopic experience both humorous and moving. Opened October 30th; runs through November 18th at the Vineyard Theatre. Discount Tickets.