Romance, charm, and intrigue are not normally qualities one associates with Bennigan's. Yet a play replete with all three just opened there, at the corner of 47th and Eighth. The first lesson to take away from George Tynan Crowley's Most Happy is that the magic of the Theatre District need not be restricted to traditional venues.
That magic results here in a mostly gripping character study and a juicy history lesson about the life of Anne Boleyn. If you don't know anything about her, or your knowledge is limited to the few facts that inevitably arise with regards to her famous daughter (Queen Elizabeth I), don't be put off: Crowley has provided all the information you'll need to have an enlightening, enjoyable evening.
Doing this at all - let alone upstairs at a Theatre District eatery - is an ambitious undertaking, and it marks an auspicious beginning for the Unofficial New York Yale Cabaret. Based on the famed New Haven, Connecticut institution that gave rise to talents like Christopher Durang, Meryl Streep, and Sigourney Weaver, UNYYC is comprised of 11 graduates of the Yale Drama School, who want to combine irreverent entertainment with provocative theatre here in New York. Currently, they've got things half right: A "curtain raiser" of theatre games, with what amounted to forced audience participation at the opening night performance, is not the best way to situate the audience in the early 1500s, let alone prepare them for an evening of politics, passion, and betrayal.
Most Happy needs no apology or explanation; it's involving enough on its own. Anne's story is inherently theatrical on its own: She's a young woman who brings about the dissolution of King Henry VIII's marriage by refusing to act as his consort. Add in elements of religious rebellion (Anne wants to read the Bible on her own, not have it interpreted it for her by the Church), sororal one-upmanship (Anne's sister, Mary, is her romantic and ideological rival), and a suggested romance with longtime friend Thomas Wyatt, and you have the makings of an epic.
Crowley, though, eschews such treatment. Whereas books, films, and even operas about Anne take in the broader panorama of her complicated life, he has constructed an intimate chamber piece that breaks everything down to its simplest essentials: Anne's rivalry with Mary, the struggles for happiness and status that eventually lead her to the throne, her dismissal of the adoring but duty-bound Thomas, and so on. There's also no lack of poetry; lines like "She's in love with her destiny, or what she wish it were," or "It's thinking makes a queen, not blood," might initially seem too large for their surroundings, but fit snugly in the poetic, everyday speech Crowley has devised for these three people unknowingly tarrying at the crossroads of history.
Everything about this production, however, is ideally sized. Only Frank Scaccia's luscious, period-suggestive costumes suggest extravagance; Crowley's direction is simple and unadorned, making full use of available space and the few set pieces that scenic designer Evan Adamson has provided. The performances, too, are just right: Nicole Alifante makes Anne simultaneously classical and contemporary, an activist transcending time, and she finds all the desperation and hunger that drive Anne to power; Sheryl Moller is a gentle, firm, and fiery Mary; and Dana Watkins nicely portrays Thomas's suppressed longings, and he has real chemistry with Alifante that helps ignite their scenes together.
For all that Crowley gets right, one could question his exclusion of an onstage Henry VIII; the characters interact with him constantly in one-sided conversations that slow down the otherwise energetic pacing. And despite the strength of Alifante's and Watkins's performances, the play's emotional content is generally weak, leaving you feeling you should be moved by the story more than you ever actually are.
But these are forgivable faults in an otherwise tightly constructed and intelligently produced evening. Even a bevy of technical problems of opening night, which affected everything from lights to projections, couldn't keep this story from playing beautifully, playing powerfully, and playing profoundly. And, yes, all this at Bennigan's. Even if you go there on a full stomach, your hunger for theatre will be more than satisfied.
Unofficial New York Yale Cabaret