Theater review by Regina Robbins
Young Jean Lee’s We’re Gonna Die puts the most inescapable fact of human existence—and the very thing we spend the most time trying to escape—right there in the title. First performed in 2011 by the playwright herself as an intimate, partly autobiographical rock cabaret at Joe’s Pub (and later at Lincoln Center’s Clare Tow Theater), the show has now returned on a bigger stage, with Janelle McDermoth taking Lee’s place as the Singer.
Staged by the up-and-coming choreographer Raja Feather Kelly in his directorial debut, We’re Gonna Die is set in what is normally a very depressing modern locale: a waiting room. But the space, equipped with an antique snack machine and retro plastic chairs, is bathed in soothing pink and purple light, and its inhabitants happen to be the members of an impossibly cool, casually diverse band. Without fanfare, the Singer picks up a mic and starts telling stories about moments in life when she may have felt like she wanted to die, from childhood frenemy drama to romantic disappointment to family tragedy. These episodes lead to musical numbers that put a positive spin on the trauma, either through humor (“If we got old / And we were strong and healthy / We wouldn’t wanna die! Oh no!”) or solidarity with others coping with existential anxiety—which, after all, is everyone.
The show’s simplicity is its greatest innovation; its rejection of traditional notions of character and plot is of a piece with its general skepticism about the life-and-death narratives we tell ourselves. Eschewing the “Death is not the end!” worldview that some religions espouse, We’re Gonna Die is in no way sentimental, but it’s full of earnest emotion. As our guide and avatar, McDermoth is charming and sounds great, and the band behind her gets our blood pumping even when our hearts are breaking. Death will come for us all, sure, but for an hour or so this show provides a cause for celebration.
Second Stage Theater (Off Broadway). By Young Jean Lee. Directed by Raja Feather Kelly. With Jenelle McDermoth. Running time: 1hr. No intermission.