Even the passage of just a few years can make a potentially relevant play seem dated. That's certainly the case with The Triple Happiness, which just opened at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre as part of Second Stage's New Plays Uptown series.
While I don't know when Brooke Berman began writing her play, it was workshopped at least as far back as 2001, and thus likely written earlier. What might have then seemed a lighthearted, whimsical examination of the nature of personal and societal change at the end of the last millennium now plays as a quaint period piece, entertaining, but not as insightful or incisive as it was no doubt intended. The last several years of violently eventful history aside, The Triple Happiness is only an intermittently happy affair, a comedy that's never sure how much it should laugh at itself.
Berman draws her story and characters in strokes so broad that they don't evoke the play's setting of New York in the transitional year of 1999 as much as simply refer to it. Berman's attempts to define the attitudes of people toward the year 2000 are generally limited to having her characters ask and answer questions like "Who do you want to be in the new Millennium?" or "Do you think we need a new world?" Her trouble devising dramatically viable answers to these questions only further points up her watered-down and frequently frustrating treatment of the play's themes.
That the stilted manner of Berman's writing comes through so clearly is not the fault of director Michael John GarcÚs; he does everything he can to keep buoyant and funny an often leaden and earthbound script. But neither the shakily conceived main plot, which finds down-on-her-luck movie actress Tessa (Ally Sheedy) crashing (and subsequently upheaving) the home of a Westchester family, nor the subplot, about a man named Jamie (Jesse J. Perez) that the family's son Mike (Keith Nobbs) meets on the bus, make it easy for GarcÚs to rein the show in.
Berman is more interested in exploring concepts like "dangerous love," which Jamie practices with his girlfriend and which Mike experiences with Tessa in exchange for lessons about Charles Dickens and Herman Melville. Berman also institutes a framing device (which she eventually abandons), with Mike's Vassar classmate Hope (Marin Ireland) observing everything from a perch on top of Andromache Chalfant's set, apparently writing the story of the play as it happens. It's subsequently little shock that a dramatic contrivance finds her, too, ending up at Mike's house to further complicate things.
The plots uncomfortably collide and intermingle, with certain facets (Mike's relationship with Tessa) receiving more stage time than feels appropriate, while others (the foundering relationship of Mike's parents, played by Mark Blum and Betsy Aidem, both of whom are apparently interested in Tessa) are barely touched on. Everything is eventually tied up in a quick, customary manner that seems designed to encourage you to ponder and rehash the characters' problems after the play has ended.
There's only one problem: the characters aren't interesting enough, as written or acted, to stick with you for long. Aidem gives the fullest performance in her light sketch of a role, finding complexities in the sexual and familial confusions of Mike's mother that the script only hints at. Nobbs is engagingly awkward as Mike, but can't make the character's fits and starts of focus and affection play, and he never comes across as convincingly captivated by Tessa. As Sheedy plays her as a depressive Goth queen (she's even dressed by costume designer Miranda Hoffman in an unflattering black dress), this isn't exactly surprising. Blum, Perez, and Ireland do what they can with what they have to work with.
A few of the production's elements do impress: Chalfant's pastel-colored set is creamily attractive, Ben Stanton's lights help divide the stage up in clever ways, Berman fires off a few amusing comic salvos, and the play's title - deriving from the name of an obscure Chinatown bar in the story - conjures up evocative images of the three different kinds of happiness Berman's characters face: happiness with what they have, happiness with what they don't, and happiness with what they might get.
Overall, however, as a play about six people searching for their own direction in the world, The Triple Happiness too often feel as though it too has no idea where it's going.
Second Stage Theatre New Plays Uptown