By: Samuel L. Leiter
October 30, 2018: Grief over the death of a dearly loved one has inspired many great works of auto- and semiautobiographical literature. To name a few, these include John Donne’s poem, “Death, Be Not Proud,” John Gunther’s memoir of the same name, and James Agee’s novel A Death in the Family. Turning one’s personal grief into compelling drama, however, is a tricky task, as clearly demonstrated in Ngozi Anyanwu’s dully undramatic Good Grief. The work, which premiered last year at L.A.’s Kirk Douglas Theatre, is now at Off Broadway’s Vineyard.
Anyanwu, whose The Homecoming Queen made a much stronger impression early this year, says that, while Good Grief is “still very much a work of fiction,” she wrote it because “I missed someone and I missed myself when I was this young.”
In it, Anyanwu presents the struggles of Nkechi (portrayed by the playwright herself)—nicknamed N—the feisty, academically gifted American-born daughter of Nigerian parents. Her dilemma is to overcome her grief following the death in a car accident of a close friend and not-quite lover. That would be Matthew Jason George (Ian Quinlan), a.k.a. MJG but called MJ, a handsome, light-skinned, fatherless boy who first befriended N when they were 10-year-old classmates.
Set between 1992 and 2005 in suburban Bucks County, PA, Good Grief veers back and forth in time, using 17 mostly two-character scenes, to present N and MJ’s friendship as they grow up through their school years. He’s smart but academically lazy, with a rebellious streak that Anyanwu likens to James Dean. N’s abilities, on the other hand, have gotten her into a fast-track premed program at Drexel that, to everyone’s disappointment, she quits in search of other pastures.
Much of what we see concerns the efforts of her parents, Papa (Oberon A. Adjepong) and NeNe (Patrice Johnson Chevannes), a psychiatric nurse, each with their own point of view, to console and counsel her. Also joining the process are her weed-smoking brother, Bro (Nnamdi Asomugha), whose ungrammatical black dialect N dislikes, and JD (Hunter Parrish), the white, high-school homecoming king and all-around nice guy to whom N loses her virginity.
Shifting from lyrical to colloquial (and profane) prose, and framing the story within a mythical context inspired by the story of Orion and Artemis, Anyanwu seeks to remember the smallest details of her friendship with MJ. She hopes never to forget him but also strives to overcome her heartache.
Unfortunately, the characters around her aren’t especially unusual, the situations border on the banal, and the play lacks dramatic thrust. For all the drama’s incidental moments of human connection, its scenes of teenage sexuality, its ruminations on death and loss, and its occasional intimations of laughter, Good Grief is essentially a static memory piece cum lamentation focused on the almost always present N.
Director Awoye Timpo gets fine performances from the ensemble, with especially noteworthy contributions from Anwanyu and Quinlan. However, the bland neutrality of Jason Ardizzone-West’s bilevel set of metal scaffolding, with perforated sliding panels, is boringly unattractive. Moreover, other than when a bed thrusts forth, it’s impossible to tell where any particular scene is located, all of them looking more or less the same and hindering variety in the staging.
Oona Curley’s lighting, with its clever use of fluorescent strips, helps relieve the visual monotony as do Andy Jean’s appealing costumes, with one caveat. I know it’s a delicate issue but I wonder if Anwanyu’s eye-catchingly athletic arms need always be so exposed by a tank top.
Grieving, we’re advised, comes in five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Good Grief might have been more stage-worthy if the stages of Nkechi’s grief showed such a variety of progression.
Good Grief **1/2
The Vineyard Theatre
108 E 15th St
New York, NY 10003
Through November 18, 2018
Photography: Carol Rosegg