We’re all in pain – because of loneliness or loss, betrayal or illness – and playwright Young Jean Lee wants to offer us some comfort. This might not be immediately apparent, given the title of her unusual show, and its format: Performer Janelle McDermoth sings a half-dozen tuneful, hard-charging rock songs interspersed with anecdotes of sorrow and trauma that range from funny-sad to tragic to horrid, lifted from Lee’s actual life and that of her friends and family.
The philosophy is expressed at its bluntest when quoting her friend Maya — “Horrible things, they happen all the time. What makes you so special that you should go unscathed?” —
And at its most humorous in the song “When You Get Old.” McDermoth introduces it as a story her mother told her after she noticed her first white hair. On her deathbed, her mother’s grandmother told her that old age means losing your mind and seeing all your friends die and becoming a burden to those around you. But all of this is a blessing:
If we got old
And we were strong and healthy
We wouldn’t wanna die!
Lee first wrote, directed and performed We’re Gonna Die in 2011 at Joe’s Pub, accompanied by a live band. She was moved to create the show in reaction to her father’s death, which is the longest story in the show and among the grimmest. In the nine years since then, the avant-garde downtown playwright has gone mainstream, with a production of Straight White Men starring Armie Hammer and Josh Charles, in Second Stage Theater’s new Broadway theater, the Helen Hayes, which was the first work by an Asian-American woman playwright on the Great White Way.
Last year, Farrell Parker took over from Lee as the performer in a DC area production of We’re Gonna Die by Flying V. The new production, in Second Stage Theater’s Off-Broadway home, stars McDermoth, a powerhouse New York stage actress (A Bronx Tale, Soul Doctor), and marks the Off-Broadway directorial debut of noted choreographer Raja Feather Kelly.
Second Stages’ Tony Kiser Theater is not the ideal venue for such an intimate show, with its wide proscenium stage and deep stadium seating. David Zinn’s design helps compensate by offering an oddness that tilts toward metaphor. The stage is lit light purple, there is a spiral staircase, and balloons slowly drop from the ceiling. The set could be a waiting room – we see the band members, when not playing, occasionally buy something from a barely visible vending machine. But are they waiting for a train, or a doctor….or death?
There is little time or space to consider such cosmic questions in a show dominated by McDermoth’s performance, straightforward when telling her tales, uplifting when singing her songs.
We’re Gonna Die, a mere hour long, ends with a blast — a party full of balloons and tinsel and acrobatics by McDermoth and the five band members, wearing party hats, who have suddenly become amazing dancers, and a singalong with the audience:
I’m gonna die
I’m gonna die someday Then I’ll be gone
And it’ll be okay
accompanied by a huge flashing neon sign sliding back and forth in front of the stage “WE’RE GONNA DIE”
It’s charming and weird and wonderful. It might have been more comforting, though, had the cast included even just one person who wasn’t young and good-looking and incredibly fit — someone who didn’t look as if they might live forever.
We’re Gonna Die is on stage at Second Stages’ Tony Kiser Theater (305 W 43rd Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues, New York, NY 10036) through March 22, 2020.
Tickets and details
We’re Gonna Die written by Young Jean Lee. Directed and choreographed by Raja Feather Kelly. Featuring Reddy Hall, Janelle McDermoth, Kevin Ramessar, Ximone Rose, Debbie Christine Tjong, Marques Walls. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.