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We're Gonna Die

Theatre Review by James Wilson - February 25, 2020

Janelle McDermoth
Photo by Joan Marcus
The theme of Young Jean Lee's We're Gonna Die, currently in a new production at Second Stage Theater, is best expressed in a repeated refrain from the title song. The lyric brutally reminds the audience, "We're alive but we can't live forever/ We can't keep each other safe from harm." This uncategorizable show, which bills itself as "a non-musical/non-play/non-concert," presents one of the frankest reflections on death, aging, rejection and isolation that you are likely to see on stage. Yet, it also happens to be one of the most exhilarating, reassuring, and life-affirming performances you may experience this year.

We're Gonna Die premiered at Joe's Pub in 2011 and was later presented in two separate engagements at Lincoln Center's Claire Tow Theater. Directed by Paul Lazar and featuring Lee, with musical backing by the indie rock band Future Wife, the evening was a strange hybrid of autobiographical performance art, stand-up, and pop/punk cabaret. Lee, who is primarily known as a playwright, was an entrancing raconteur and agreeable lead vocalist, and she delivered most of the material in a charmingly deadpan manner. It made for a peculiar and beguiling encounter.

Without losing a bit of its downtown edge, the newest incarnation, directed and choreographed by Raja Feather Kelly, is decidedly more theatrical. Whereas the previous version was performed on an unadorned stage, this production takes place in an unspecified waiting room of a hospital, government office, or even a recording studio. (David Zinn provides the spectacular scenic design, and Tuce Yasak designed the alternately moody and rock-concert lighting.) There are cold, hard plastic seats arranged in rows facing each other and a half-stocked vending machine in the corner. Prominently displayed is a clock on the downstage wall keeping real time as if offering a constant reminder of the here and always elusive now.

There is something mysterious about this place, though, and it's not just the presence of the musicians and their instruments scattered throughout the space. Why, for instance, is there a spiral staircase that descends from the ceiling and pierces through the stage floor? And why do balloons drop from the flies like oversize drops of water trickling down in slow motion? Perhaps this waiting room is purgatory, and that stairway provides easy access to both heaven and hell. In any case, for the one-hour performance time, this is an invigorating place to be.

In a powerhouse and layered performance, Janelle McDermoth plays the part of the Singer, presenting Lee's personal stories and rocking the songs by Lee and Tim Simmonds (John Michael Lyles provided additional music). The anecdotes are tinged with sadness, but they are enriched by elements of dark humor and mordant absurdity. Lee's writing creates a portrait of what it means to be human through reminiscences of an aloof and despondent uncle, a painful incident of childhood cruelty, and the harrowing and protracted death of a parent. As a great storyteller does, McDermoth makes Lee's experiences her own, and in the process reveals the ways in which trauma and pain connect all of us. On a profound level we can take comfort and feel empowered by the sense of shared humanity.

Debbie Christine Tjong, Freddy Hall, Ximone Rose,
and Janelle McDermoth

Photo by Joan Marcus
The songs (with indie-inflected orchestrations by Cian McCarthy) are captivating and catchy. Don't be surprised, however, if you find yourself bopping your head and tapping along to the insinuating tunes that have an accompanying lyric such as, "If we got old/ And didn't feel like dying/ We wouldn't wanna go!/ Uh-huh."

McDermoth is exquisitely supported by five band members, who deserve more than a mere shout-out. They include Ximone Rose (keyboard/percussion), Debbie Christine Tjong (bass), Kevin Ramessar (band leader/guitar/keyboard), Freddy Hall (guitar), and Marques Walls (drums/percussion). They do not function as just back-up for the Singer; excellent musicians all, they gradually emerge from the background to reflect the strength in collaborative bonds.

We're Gonna Die does not trade in platitudes about living life to its fullest, or time heals all wounds. Instead, this is a show that decrees that accepting one's mortality is the highest form of resilience and existential rebellion. And that is something to sing and dance about.

We're Gonna Die
Through March 22, 2020
Second Stage Theater, Tony Kiser Theatre, 305 West 43rd Street
Tickets online and current performance schedule: