Sunday, Oct. 25, 2009

Somewhat Happy Now

Initial impressions on The Rep’s new show.

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Walking in to see a show at the Quadracci Powerhouse Theatre on an opening week can be an interesting experience. The Neil Patel set for their latest show looks a bit like someone crammed select bits of an Ikea onstage to see how they’d look, which is odd considering that some of the furniture here comes from a rather tasteful place just a few blocks from the theatre. There’s lots of wood and stainless steel and such stacked pretty high in the background. It’s an interesting set suggesting some of those domestic places in life not specifically seen in the comedy.

The comedy in question is Lucinda Coxon’s Happy Now? The domestic company, which debuted last year in England, plays out a bit like an older, more realistic version of Feilding’s Bridget Jones' Diary. Deborah Staples stars as Kitty--a woman who works for a no-profit organization. She’s married to Johnny—a man who took a huge cut in pay to pursue his ream of teaching primary school. Kitty and Johnny are parents to two. They’re trying to juggle careers, parenting and marriage. We see most of the story from the perspective of Kitty, who Staples plays with substantial charm.

The rest of the cast is largely Rep resident actors. The one new face we see is that of Washington-based actress Julie Briskman, who plays Bea—wife of a white-collar alcoholic played by Brian Vaughn. Vaughn is particularly cold in the role—a total bastard. It’s to Vaughn’s credit that he doesn’t exaggerate this at all. It feels very natural. There’s an audible reaction to some of the crueler bits that he breathes out over the course of the show. Bea and her husband’s marriage is unstable and abusive. Kitty and Johnny are friends of theirs.

The social dynamic between actors in the ensemble is very cohesive. Torrey Hanson makes an interesting, if subtle impression as Kitty’s gay friend Carl—a witty, charming guy who seems quite happy. Hanson and Staples render a really interesting relationship onstage. They have a brief conversation on cell phones onstage that ends up being quite clever. Later-on, Kitty asserts that Bea and her husband are probably much happier than he thinks they are. His reaction to this the best single line in the play and it says a lot more about the central themes of the story than anything else.

Coxon flits quite quickly from comedy to drama and back again. The change in mood can be pretty dizzying. There’s also a mixture of very, very real moments with staggeringly surreal ones . . . all within the context of a perfectly cozy little domestic story. The realism of the plot runs into problem with the overall feel of the play. Yes, we get a very real, very complex look into the nature of life and parenting somewhere around the time when people have been adults for long enough to reach some coherent level of maturity. Once you’re a well-adjusted adult, you still have problems. This play explores all of the difficulties that people come into contact with even after they’ve married, had kids and reached some level of professional success. The difficulty with delivering this to the stage in a way that is faithful to the way it plays out in reality is this: there’s no clean and simple plot arc in real life. It’s more episodic. And so Happy Now? plays out like a series of events that don’t really resolve in the end. At the end of it all, three of the characters seem exhausted. They’re all sitting on a small couch at the end of a day watching TV. Will And Grace, I believe. (It’s written into the script, must be a pretty successful TV show on the other side of the Atlantic as well.) There’s a kind of staggeringly brilliant bit of humor about a play that sort of ends with three of the main characters watching TV. It’s like they’ve given-up on making it all work out. Life’s imperfect. And sometimes you end up sitting on a couch and watching television. It may not be entirely satisfying and, honestly, the pursuit of happiness is an endless journey. So you may as well end the comedy and drama of life with a few characters watching TV . . . In the end, the comedy isn’t exactly satisfying, but that’s actually kind of a good thing here . . .  the Rep’s ensemble does such a good job of making these characters people you want to hang out with that it’s actually a disappointment when the tastefully stylish couch rotates up from the stage floor for the final scene. It’s been two hours and you’re not quite ready to say good-bye to these people . . .

The Rep’s production of Happy Now? runs through November 15th. A more precise review of the show runs in this week’s Shepherd-Express.

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