A recent study found that women whose first relationship was marked by constant approval-seeking – asking, for example, “Do you love me?” again and again – are more likely to be depressed and have relationship problems for the rest of their lives. Darla, the bundle of insecurities at the heart of Feeling Feeling, an offering of the Hollywood Fringe Festival, must have been one of the study’s primary subjects. Playwright Sarah Doyle begins a 12-year slog through Darla’s troubled relationship history with her first date with Dave. “Was this a date date or a friend date?” she asks him. “Was that a real question or a joke question?” he retorts. And then, for the first of many times throughout the play, Darla begins to cry.
Doyle is right to consider the way that men and women feel their feelings differently, but it’s surprising that she explores this topic in a way that so disparages her own gender. The play follows Darla (Kendall Carroll) and Dave (Jonny Loquasto) at four periods of their excruciating relationship – each, for reasons unknown, corresponding with a different summer Olympic Games – as well as their friends Tully (Camellia Rahbary) and Andrew (Brandon Bales). When the relationship gets rocky, Darla tells Dave to go to therapy so that he can feel more. Dave tells Darla to get a chip implanted in her brain to regulate her emotions, so that she can feel less. And because she’s a doormat, having already given up UCLA law school to hang around an apartment and pick fights with him, she does it.
But the problem with Darla doesn’t appear to be that she feels too many feelings. Rather, Doyle has taken the character to such an extreme that she comes across as mentally ill. Darla cries constantly, except when she’s shouting and shrieking. She speaks in a baby voice, except when she’s spewing vulgarities about the contents of her vagina, or detailed descriptions of her dreams about feces. And most disturbingly, she seeks out men who treat her badly, replacing Dave briefly with man-child Taylor (the Bieber-esque Leigh Parker) whose only redeeming value is that he is great in the sack, as she reminds us frequently.
That Darla is able to extract herself from these relationships does not excuse Doyle’s depiction of her female characters. She paints them, and by extension all women, as hysterical creatures who need electronic modulating to save them from their emotions and from their desire for marriage and babies and other adult choices that would force the men in this show to grow up and stop playing video games.
Had Doyle not mired us in the more mundane details of her characters’ misery (like a meandering subplot about the father of Tully’s son going to prison while she goes to New York to pursue a fashion career), Feeling Feeling could have been an examination of the way technology both enhances and hinders our relationships, akin to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. With the emotional-modification chip, Darla never truly feels, but that means she can never be hurt. It also turns her into an automaton, which, thankfully, puts an end to her screeching. (Wouldn’t lithium, the low-tech solution here, have done the same?)
The choice between feeling and not feeling is tantalizing for anyone who has been wounded by love, and in Darla’s final monologue, Doyle finally considers the merits of unhappiness versus catatonia, and how misery can come easily to those who set their expectations too high. That truism is best heeded before seeing this play.
Feeling Feeling, Fringe Central (ArtWorks Theatre and Studios, 6569 Santa Monica Blvd.), June 18-19, 23-24