“How does that make you feel?” has an identity problem. The story itself is promising; a narrative that approaches mature themes of mental health mixed with comedy gives the story a potential for impactful scenes punctuated by well-timed humor. This is stated in the program materials, which mention “dark subjects that often receive the most stigma surrounding them such as therapy, depression, and suicide… [and toes] the line between dark comedy filled with dramatic elements.” It is disappointing, then, to see the previously mentioned dark comedy morph quickly into shock humor which only serves to undermine any real impact of each character’s self-discovery for an ultimately fruitless show.
The play follows the story of Jerry, a psychologist, and his six therapy patients. The patients (and Jerry himself) each have their own demons to battle as a result of their tragic backstories. These range greatly from infidelity to drug addiction – the character stories are by far the best part of the narrative and make for engaging vignettes framed in one-on-one therapy sessions. It is unfortunate then that these small, well written stories are made moot by the overarching narrative, which is that the six patients band together and ambush Jerry in his office with a sex and drug filled party with the promise to kill themselves at the end of it.
The biggest misstep in HDTMYF is that it attempts to be a comedy with dramatic elements rather than the other way around. As mentioned above, the dark humor on display here is primarily shock/crass humor. Inherently, this is not a bad thing, however the pacing of the shock humor never develops past jokes about sex or innuendo and the one-note comedy gets stale quickly. Getting the audience on board with this type of humor - set to the backdrop of suicide and death - is a hard sell in any comedy, however, this issue is compounded when it attempts to take itself very seriously at the same time.
The drama here is one of the better parts of the show, especially with the character backstories. However, the payoff of each scene either never capitalizes on a meaningful resolution or the resolution is completely undercut by the comedy. For example, one senior patient’s heartfelt confession about him not wanting to be a burden to his family with his cancer treatment is undermined in the very next scene when the cast makes jokes about the recently dead senior bodies having sex with each other. The example unfortunately echoes the rest of the scenes which are set in the ‘party’ room. The juxtaposition of tone would normally create levity, but instead is too heavy-handed and ultimately creates unease for the audience.
While each cast member had shining moments, it was clear the rapid fluctuation in tone lead to some confusion in how each actor was to portray their characters. This lead to the quality of the acting in each scene to be inconsistent but on the whole believable. The standout performance comes from Vic Kuligoski as Rusty, whose unrelenting energy and expert comedic delivery almost never failed to draw a laugh from the audience. Rusty’s monologue, in his one-on-one therapy session, almost serves as a window into what the show could be – a seamless blend of well delivered dark humor with a valid opinion on the human condition.
Ultimately, How Does That Make You Feel? is a production with a fantastic premise that unfortunately fails to capitalize on its mature themes and its humor. Perhaps a re-work to focus on the drama would both enhance the shows strength as a tragic story and lay the groundwork for more well-timed and impactful humor.
Review by Ryan Moore
How Does That Make You Feel? completed its inaugural run at Stage 773 on August 20th, 2017.
The Hawk Chicago is included in TheatreinChicago's Review Round-Up.