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Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2009

Milwaukee Rep’s ‘Happy Now?’ Explores Life’s Ups and Downs

Theater Review

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The Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s production of Happy Now? is definitely a play for grown-ups, although the characters, all adults, often don’t handle life’s challenges in a grown-up way. The play opened Friday in the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater.

In trying to show the fragile balance of relationships, playwright Lucinda Coxon leans heavily on the downside. The play’s central character is Kitty, a young wife and mother who lives in London. On the cusp of middle age, Kitty must balance the roles of wife, mother, daughter, friend and manager. Along the way she loses perspective on her life until a businessman she hardly knows reminds her of her blessings. He tells her that her life actually contains everything she needs to be content. “I give you permission to be happy,” he says. His words hit home.

But prior to this epiphany, we meet all the people in Kitty’s life: her steady husband, who has “left the rat race” to pursue a more fulfilling career; her friends, including her best friend who happens to be gay; her aggravating mother; and this businessman. They come together in various combinations to bring joy and havoc to Kitty’s life. Many of the situations are painfully realistic. What working woman couldn’t relate to this scenario: Kitty returns after a one-day work conference, takes a look around her house, and says, “If I were ever gone for more than a day, (my family) would go feral.”

Under Jon Jory’s direction, the characters get the most out of the play’s occasional, but devastatingly funny, quips, visual gags and one-liners. It lightens the mood as one couple contemplates divorce, another character’s life hangs in the balance, and another character faces up to his alcoholism.

Kitty is onstage in almost every scene, and this is a welcome situation with Deborah Staples in the role. She expertly plays her character on the edge, teetering but never quite going over the brink. Gerard Neugent, as Kitty’s husband, broadens his acting chops in a serious role. Kitty’s best friend, Carl, gets a lift from Torrey Hanson’s deadpan humor. His low-key performance is dead-on, and this makes his character all the more sympathetic. The same cannot be said for Lee Ernst as the lecherous (and decidedly unsympathetic) businessman. But Ernst is so likable that he gradually gets the audience to warm up to him. His performance is sheer magic to watch. Although Rose Pickering has a minor role as Kitty’s self-pitying, hypochondriac mother, she makes the most of it. The more infuriating she gets, the funnier she is. Although there’s much for all to enjoy in Happy Now?, it must be noted that this play contains mature subject matter and strong language. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it may give hope to those who find themselves confronting similar situations.

Happy Now? continues at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater through Nov. 15.

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