By Brian Scott Lipton
“There are only two sure things in life, death and taxes,” Benjamin Franklin famously told the public, and playwright Young Jean Lee certainly isn’t arguing with at least the first half of this statement in We’re Gonna Die, a surprisingly upbeat-yet-downbeat mixture of monologue and songs now inhabiting Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theater.
But Lee (who no longer appears in the show as she did at Joe’s Pub in 2011 and then at LCT3 over the next two years) would probably amend that statement. Over its mere one-hour running-time, Lee—whose role as “Singer” is now played by the incredibly appealing and strong-voiced Janelle McDermoth—reminds us repeatedly that we are all going to experience disappointment, loneliness, heartbreak and seemingly unbearable pain before we deal with death—which then (especially if you live long enough) comes as some form as relief.
The interconnected stories of the Singer’s past (all of which are reportedly true, but did not necessarily happen to Lee), not only serve as effective cautionary tales; they are also designed to bring some form of comfort to those who have been or are in pain. But it’s the show’s songs (all of which have lyrics by Lee set to the music of either John-Michael Lyles or Tim Simmonds) that really drive Lee’s singular message home.
“When your brain’s had enough/And your body gives up/You will sleep/By and by” the Singer tells us in the show’s first number “Lullaby for the Miserable,” while the elderly narrator of “When You Get Old” bluntly tells her granddaughter. “If we got old/ And didn’t feel like dying/We wouldn’t wanna go!/Uh-huh.”
And then there’s the final number—exuberantly staged by Raja Feather Kelly, with McDermoth and her quirkily costumed bandmates (Freddy Hall, Kevin Ramessar, Ximone Rose, Debbie Christine Tjong and Marques Walls) finally letting loose all over David Zinn’s waiting-room-like set—that makes no bones about Lee’s philosophy by repeating the show’s title phrase seemingly ad infinitum. That this catchy tune eventually becomes an audience-participation singalong is just one measure of how unusual this piece really is.
Still, it can be no argument that We’re Gonna Die is far from standard theatrical fare and feels like it could be an especially risky choice for a theater that often caters to a middle-aged-and-above crowd who might not want to be reminded of their own mortality. (That said, at a recent Saturday night performance, a large swath of the audience was under 40 and responded to the material with great enthusiasm!)
Still, like Franklin, one can’t really dispute that Lee has a valid, inescapable point to make. As the Singer taunts us in “Horrible Things”: “Who do you think you are? To be immune from tragedy? What makes you so special? That you should go unscathed?” The human condition, Lee suggests in no uncertain terms, needs to be faced, not ignored.
We’re Gonna Die. Through March 22 at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theater (305 West 43rd Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues). www.2st.com
Photos: Joan Marcus