Good Grief starts at “the beginning of time,” where gods Zeus, Apollo, Neptune, and more mingle with our mere mortal heroine Nkechi (playwright Ngozi Anyanwu, doing double duty as star), or N for short. “Just listen,” they instruct us—before we’re pulled back down to earth to hear the tale of N and her best friend/probable true love Matthew Jason George (Ian Quinlan), aka MJ.
Then, as soon as we start to get drawn into N and MJ’s story—they have a real connection, as evidenced by their friendly-slash-flirty banter—we’re yanked into…a mixed martial arts match? If you’re scratching your head, you’re not the only one. N is about to get walloped with “her first bout of bad news ever.” But before she can process it, she must wrestle with it—and with the messenger, a neighbor’s mom (Lisa Ramirez). It’s amusing, and it’s also confusing, considering we don’t even know what the so-heavy-it-merits-its-own-bout news is.
At its heart—and there is plenty of heart—Good Grief, at the Vineyard Theatre, is honest and engaging. But it’s hampered by Anyanwu’s overwrought structure. (See: the aforementioned bad-news smackdown.) The central characters, N and MJ, are more than appealing enough to grab our hearts. So why mess around with Zeus and the gang? And while a nonchronological timeline makes perfect sense in theory—that’s how memories work, after all—it makes less sense here, in practice: The scenes pinball from N and MJ’s first adult kiss—so powerful it illuminates an onstage light—to their clumsy teenage practice kisses (N: “I’m not you with the pretty eyelashes and the ethnic James Dean thing”), to an awkward under-the-sheets encounter (MJ: “We don’t have to. We could wait.”), to late-night teenage philosophical phone calls (MJ: “What do you think it’s like before we die?”), to their first meeting as kids (N: “You had to stand in line by yourself at recess and my mom said I can’t be hangin out with rascals”). Where are N and MJ in their relationship at a given moment? A few visual cues—perhaps from director Awoye Timpo, who recently teamed with Anyanwu on her beautiful drama The Homecoming Queen at the Atlantic Theatre—would not have gone amiss.
Though it centers on N and MJ’s friendship—the source of the eponymous grief, incidentally—Good Grief is at its best, and most grounded, during a scene between N and her brother, named simply Bro (Nnamdi Asomugha). It involves a joint, a 40, and references to Lean on Me, Lynne Thigpen, and Schoolhouse Rock (“Conjunction Junction, what’s your function?”). N teases Bro for talking like he’s on The Wire: “We live in Bucks County, homie.” Bro playfully defends his online associate degree in philosophy: “Don’t play out DeVry University.” The two of them listen to music, drink malt liquor, and reminisce about MJ. It’s low-key and heartfelt, and more magical than anything any of those gods could possibly conjure up.
Good Grief opened Oct. 30, 2018, and runs through Nov. 18 at the Vineyard Theatre. Tickets and info: vineyardtheatre.org