Theater review by Helen Shaw
Playwright Ngozi Anyanwu has a specific talent: She can craft an exchange in which two people reveal how much they care about each other. In Good Grief, her satisfyingly unsad tragedy at the Vineyard Theatre, the playwright indulges that gift to its utmost. Anyanwu dispenses almost entirely with the usual dramatic tools; there’s no suspense here, since she scrambles the chronology, and no real conflict. Instead, over and over, we see family members, friends or lovers express their deep attachments in light, speakable little moments. Watching the play is like flipping through TV channels, alighting on different shows, and being moved by each out-of-context scene. We get the capital-r Relationship classics—the first kiss, the first kiss that really means something, a dad teaching his daughter to drive—and the best of them give you a tingle, like a good hook in a pop song.
Anyanwu plays her own heroine, Nkechi, at a number of different ages—always, somehow, on the brink of changing. Who she is, deep down, seems up for grabs; she has been a bully-adjacent little mean girl, an eighth-grade nerd with confidence issues, a college dropout, a brave woman who takes risks and a frightened girl who can’t work out her boundaries. And for much of the play, Nkechi is in grief. Her longtime friend and just-gotten-started romantic partner, MJ (Ian Quinlan), has died in a car accident, so her mind roams over the sweetest scenes in their relationship, as her parents (Oberon K.A. Adjepong and Patrice Johnson Chevannes), brother (Nnamdi Asomugha) and attractive chum (Hunter Parrish) try to jolly her out of her despair. Because Nkechi is telling the tale and admits that she sometimes changes stories to suit herself, she gives every scene the slightly too-perfect sheen of a romantic comedy. And who wouldn’t put a Nora Ephron gloss on our memories, if shining them up made them hurt less?
As an actor, Anyanwu handles funny moments well but is weaker when playing loss. Happily, director Awoye Timpo has surrounded her with tip-top performers: Anyanwu and Asomugha share a vivid scene as bickering, supportive siblings; Quinlan oozes perfection as the boy who says all the right things; Adjepong and Chevannes generate industrial-boiler levels of warmth. The physical aspects of Timpo’s staging are less strong. Jason Ardizzone-West’s set is puzzling—its gloomy black panels seem to be trying to snuff out the play’s paradoxical brightness—and Oona Curley’s lighting shifts and flickers moodily during scenes, as though the characters were caught in headlights. Luckily, despite this noir nonsense, the actors keep playing in a major key. Anyanwu’s point is that we can take pleasure and solace in memories, even when they’ve been brushed by pain. The designers may zero in on the grief, but the rest of the show keeps its focus on the good.
Vineyard Theatre (Off Broadway). By Ngozi Anyanwu. Directed by Awoye Timpo. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission.