Just what would a good Young Jean Lee play look like? This is not to suggest that Lee crafts bad plays. In fact, in only eight years, she has assembled one of Off-Broadway’s most distinctive oeuvres—impish, subversive, helplessly entertaining. But Lee has a perverse, anhedonic streak and beats her writer’s block by asking herself what the worst play is that she could write. The answers have ranged from moody historical drama (The Appeal), to earnest multicultural pageant (Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven), to religious service (Church), to Shakespeare paraphrase absent the main character (Lear). Most recently, the play Lee least wanted to write is a one-woman musical about mortality, starring herself.
In We’re Gonna Die, at Joe’s Pub, produced by 13P and directed by Paul Lazar, Lee bounces onstage in yellow jeans and goofy sailboat sweater and launches into a song cycle about the worst events in her life. Backed by the confident pop of the all-male quartet Future Wife, she sings of betrayals, breakups, and the anguish of her father’s cancer (an event that helped inspire Lear). One of her more cheerful ditties, a love song set against a jangling tambourine, runs, “If you die first, I’ll be alone.”
Throughout, Lee soothes herself with the notion that she’s in no way singular, that to be human is to receive a measure of suffering. She details her great-grandmother’s pronouncement that the miseries of old age ready her to welcome death and reveals that her chief consolation after her father’s passing came from a friend’s letter, which read, “Who do you think you are/To be immune from tragedy?/What makes you so special/That you should go unscathed?”
And yet Lee is special. Her singing is no more than competent, though charming, but she manages to work everyone in the crowded cabaret space around to her peculiar philosophy. By the show’s end, she had everyone clapping rhythmically and crooning the title song—an audience joining together to contemplate and celebrate their own demise. Woody Allen once said that it was impossible to face one’s death objectively and still carry a tune. Shows him.