CAMBRIDGE — It shouldn’t come as news to anyone, but guess what? We’re all going to die.
The fact that we only have a temporary lease on this planet is at the center of Young Jean Lee’s “We’re Gonna Die,” a one-woman show that blends cabaret and storytelling. The intimate, quirky play merges life’s ordinary travails with upbeat pop tunes, creating an unexpected sense of comfort while underscoring the truth that we live in a world where pain is inevitable and that there’s not much we can do but take solace in small moments of common-sense connection.
Actress Obehi Janice lets us know that from the start, when she takes the stage in thick glasses, jeans, and a nerdy nautical sweater that looks like a gift from a lovable but fashion-oblivious grandmother. She immediately tells a story about the uncle nobody wants to show up at Thanksgiving, the sad sack who smells bad, is rude, lethargic, probably still a virgin, and just a plain loser with a capital L. But then she turns the story on its head, making us understand the extent of his suffering.
The New England premiere of the play, which is co-presented by Company One Theatre and American Repertory Theater and runs through April 29 at Oberon, is engaging when Janice tells those stories. She invites us in with personal tales that are mundane from the outside but life-shattering on the inside. It’s like death from a thousand paper cuts: playground rejection, parental favoritism, boyfriends who walk out. These are the normal, everyday defeats that build up in a life, leaving us wondering where to seek comfort as we trudge through the loneliness of our days.
But the pop tunes that intersperse these stories are integral to the experience, and while Janice is a formidable actress who stood out in Company One’s recent production of “An Octoroon,” she is not a singer. The stories get more wrenching as she recalls the death of a parent and the betrayal of a friend, but Janice’s charisma dissipates into nervousness and awkwardness when she opens her mouth to sing. The enthusiastic four-piece band (Steve Sarro on keyboard, Thomas Dunn on bass, Shahjehan Khan on guitar, and Ethan Selby on drums) overpowers her on most of the songs, and it is hard to hear the lyrics that are so crucial to the wonderful juxtaposition of tragedy and perky pop.
Janice strikes a nerve when she talks about a single gray hair initiating fears of a “downward decline toward deterioration and sickness and death.” But we can barely hear her when she sings about aging: “When you get old, you will lose your mind. And everything will hurt all the time.” Those lyrics, matched with an upbeat indie rock tune, make the whole piece gel. And that part is lost when we can’t hear them.
The point — as the lyrics of one song illustrate — is to make us “feel a little better, just a little, not a lot.” Lee has been described as “the most adventurous downtown playwright of her generation,” and director Shawn LaCount’s energetic production of this short work (which caps in at just under an hour) displays her offbeat sensibility. But the piece calls for a singer who can be heard over the band. That said, Janice does finally come into her stride at the end, when she and the band sing a cappella and get the whole crowd chanting, “We’re gonna die.” Yes. We are.
WE’RE GONNA DIE
By Young Jean Lee. Original music by Young Jean Lee, Tim Simmonds, Mike Hanf, Nick Jenkins, and Benedict Kupstas. Directed by Shawn LaCount. Co-presented by Company One Theatre and American Repertory Theater. At Oberon, Cambridge, through April 29. Tickets: From $25-$35, 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org
Patti Hartigan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.