Review: Remembering What Was and Wasn’t in ‘Good Grief’

Review: Remembering What Was and Wasn’t in ‘Good Grief’

This is the way they were. Maybe.

The responsibility of remembering weighs heavily on Nkechi, the narrator of “Good Grief,” Ngozi Anyanwu’s tender play about loss at an early age, which opened on Tuesday at the Vineyard Theater. Nkechi has sworn never to forget the boy she will always (probably, maybe) love more than anyone else in the world.

But why is it so hard for her to see him now in her mind’s eye? Portrayed in a flux of waxing and waning certainty by Ms. Anyanwu, Nkechi keeps reframing scenes from her relationship with the charismatic MJ (Ian Quinlan), sometimes through a cold lens of regret, sometimes through the magnifying glass of myth.

And as the images shift and change, she thinks: “Maybe I’m remembering something or someone else. Maybe I’m mixing him up with another love or person or feeling or time.” Nkechi (who is usually called N) concludes hopefully, “But maybe he did exist.”

The very youthful profundity of such thoughts saturates this lyrical production, directed as a flickering string of moments by Awoye Timpo. “Good Grief” is shaped by the existential self-consciousness that grips adolescents dealing with the cold fact of mortality.

It dares to be as fanciful, histrionic, awkward and downright terrified as young people are in that period when the hormones kick in and emotions seesaw between extremes. It’s a time when your own incandescent vitality makes death seem both impossible and irresistible.

Death, accordingly, comes up often in the playful but absolutely serious conversations of N, the daughter of Nigerian-Americans in suburban Pennsylvania, and her classmate MJ. What does it feel like to die? What happens after? And not just to the dead people, but to those who are left behind.

Such talk is delivered in fragments in “Good Grief,” which takes place between 1992 and 2005, or rather in an indefinite present in which N restlessly recalls that period. The script jumps almost haphazardly among those years, from the day N meets MJ in elementary school to the shadowed months of her life that stretch into seeming endlessness after he is killed in a car crash.

What was once a teasing abstraction has become an implacable reality. And N finds herself forever reliving, and rewriting, those days when she and MJ — her best friend and almost lover — would talk and talk and talk about who they were, and how they might be remembered.

In tone, “Good Grief” brings to mind sentimental young adult novels of premature tragedy like John Green’s best-selling “The Fault in Our Stars.” In form, it is considerably more adventurous. In her introductory notes for the play Ms. Anyanwu says of its structure, “If there is any, then this is how it goes,” before explaining how punctuation in the script should inform line readings.

This experimental aspect shouldn’t put off the teenagers who would seem to be the ideal audience for this heartbroken story, nor the adults who occasionally like to revisit past days of angst and ecstasy. In a way, “Good Grief” is a quieter, more meditative equivalent to the Broadway-bound “Be More Chill,” the hard-charging, smash musical about the dangers of high school popularity.

Personally, I prefer the lower-volume alternative from Ms. Anyanwu, whose earlier works include the warmly received “The Homecoming Queen,” about a young woman returning to her native Nigeria from the United States. (Then again, just so you know, I’m also a fan of the teen-romance Netflix movie “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.”)

“Good Grief” could benefit from a more poetic set than the tiered black box provided by Jason Ardizzone-West, with often cold lighting by Oona Curley. I appreciate that everything is occurring in N’s stark midnight of the imagination. But the look doesn’t always match Ms. Anyanwu’s language, which reaches for the stars within the darkness.

The script could use more consistency and cadence in its fantasy sequences to achieve the fugue-like effect I presume Ms. Anyanwu is aspiring to. Presenting the scene in which N learns about MJ’s death as a television wrestling match makes sense. But in tone, it’s a one-off riff that doesn’t rest comfortably in context.

“Good Grief” still registers throughout as an affecting study of the ambivalence of bereavement. And it is acted by a sensitive cast that finds the authentic emotion within even the most stylized scenes.

Oberon K.A. Adjepong and Patrice Johnson Chevannes deftly combine brusqueness and gentleness as N’s helpless parents, who apply scraps of the lore and philosophy of their Nigerian culture in dealing with their bereaved and unresponsive daughter. (“Did you just African proverb me?” N asks her mother in exasperation.)

Nnamdi Asomugha, as her jovially supportive but also grief-stunned brother, and Hunter Parrish, as a high school hunk with unexpected depths, are also spot on. But it’s the relationship between the assertive N and the dashing, good-bad boy MJ that gives the play its most haunting emotional substance.

In a presumably autobiographical role, Ms. Anyanwu makes it clear that N’s strident, take-charge confidence is a shield with plenty of cracks. And Mr. Quinlan’s MJ manages to embody both a young woman’s dream and a young man’s rudderlessness.

Even though they have known each other for most of their lives, N and MJ haven’t quite figured out who and what they are going to be to each other. They do know they feel less lonely — and better understood — when they’re together than when they’re with anyone else. This makes the possibility of a sexual connection seem both natural and perhaps ruinous.

This is one of those young friendships that you could imagine evolving into adulthood with endless permutations, like the one so persuasively rendered in the Irish writer Sally Rooney’s new novel, “Normal People.” For N, such an evolution can only be conjectural. That void is both the setting for and the raison d’être of this sweet and sorrowful play.

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