Theater Review: MadLab’s Wickedly Funny, Audacious ‘Let’s Hope You Feel Better’
In some ways, Samantha Oty’s Let’s Hope You Feel Better, given razor-sharp direction by Sarah Vargo (with Dallas Ray as assistant director), which opened last weekend, feels like a return to the ribald, death-drenched shock fests that first made MadLab’s name. But this jaw-dropping satire, with ample heart – albeit twisted and obscured – is the best example of that genre in recent memory.
We meet young Boston couple Therese (McLane Nagy) and Toby (John Grote), the night after their engagement, minutes after morning sex. Both studying to be doctors of varying stripes, Toby a surgeon and Therese a therapist, we quickly meet their goofball best friends (and soon to be best man and maid of honor), Archie (Sean Taylor) and Wren (Sha-Lemar Davis).
This classic two-couples sitcom structure – complete with slamming doors, a will-they-or-won’t-they sexual tension among the best friends and named but (almost) never shown family members outside those apartment walls – doesn’t take long to fray and crack around the edges. There’s a flurry of questions about “Will Therese be okay?” when left alone, and her thesis on modern cannibalism.
The late-night phone calls to Isaac (who she, at first, knows only as a screen name) played by Tom Murdock hint at a deeper trouble in the relationship and further levels to Therese’s manipulation beyond the relatively harmless things we’ve seen with her time around Toby. Soon the veil drops: it’s something more sinister and less simple than an affair.
Nagy astonishes as Therese: seducing Isaac by phone and taking notes at the same time, slipping between therapist lingo, a white-knuckled hunger for control, and the sensual pleasure of keeping a secret. She pulls off some of those shifts in the same sentence, without seeming showy or mannered. An off-hand comment about Toby’s lack of any mischievous thoughts sliding into a brief, sad riff on mischief in ways that sound extremely akin to addiction, was one of many firework moments in this show that made me sit forward in my seat, drinking it in.
Nagy and Murdock’s flights of fancy as they eroticize potential ways to die perfectly thread the needle between exciting and skin-crawling, drawing the audience into complicity with this trauma-as-eroticism and never letting us off the hook for entertaining that thought. Moments of Murdock pacing his apartment, cutting himself, and the wrenching smile he has when he goes to sleep after talking with Therese, underline that there’s a person at the other end of that line. The beauty of Let’s Hope You Feel Better shines when it balances take-no-prisoners satire with the human consequences of playing with someone’s mind – the terrible danger of giving someone a reason to live.
As abominable as Therese’s actions can get – and this comedy is as dark as a tar pit – Oty and Nagy take care to supply glimmers of identification and understanding. Her need to play God, her need to see how far she can push imposing her will on people’s lives and keep up a veneer of respectability, feels like a desperate competition with her mother, the French slaughterhouse owner Marie (a magnificent Catherine Cryan). When Therese skids into a horrifying twist that betrays the language she’s used for this, it’s as shocking and as crushingly inevitable as the Madman’s turn in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”
With as fascinating a character as Therese – and a powerhouse performance like Nagy’s – it could be easy for everyone else to fade into the background but that never happens here. Grote’s Toby gets real pathos as he slowly learns things weren’t as he expected and dreamed, and how he learns even trying to walk the straight and narrow doesn’t mean you don’t have a price. Davis and Taylor have a crackling, screwball chemistry and snapping comic timing that bounce off Grote and Nagy, never leaving us any doubt about the friendships between these four.
Kate Hawthorn’s note-perfect set design – and Vargo’s decision to cross-cut scenes, with massive help from Kurt Mueller’s evocative lighting – of a spacious, just-desperate-enough living room on Therese and Toby’s apartment with Isaac’s apartment shown by one chair and a window with bars on the wall, sets up a contrast that gets under the audience’s skin, with Isaac’s presence – his loneliness – haunting the stage even when he’s not in the scene.
At a tight 80 minutes, Vargo’s direction handles the classic-farce elements brilliantly, making the most of this exceptional cast. But she also knows when to let the moments breathe. She doesn’t need to bash the audience over the head – Nagy rolling her eyes can do more than whole plays I’ve seen – she trusts us enough to get it.
The serious themes here – does a person have a right to die with dignity, what are the limits on the Hippocratic Oath’s “do no harm,” what do we owe the people in our lives – get a strong, thoughtful workout in Let’s Hope You Feel Better but nothing gets in the way of the play as a sharp, molten-hot, and sub-zero cold, often at the same time, entertainment.
Let’s Hope You Feel Better runs through October 23 with performances at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. For tickets and more info, visit madlab.net.