Richard III has nothing on Kitty, the pining protagonist at the center of Lucinda Coxon’s play Happy Now?, which just opened at Primary Stages. Poor, crippled Richard just spoke of the winter of his countrymen’s discontent. But Kitty, a rapidly-approaching-middle-age London woman with a husband and two kids, knows no seasonal or topical boundaries. She meets every challenge in her life, at any time, with the barely begrudging acceptance most don to cope with stepping in a steaming pile of something on the sidewalk. So grand is her misery, in fact, she almost seems to derive joy from her joylessness.
What, you may ask, is the source of her eternal angst? I mentioned her husband and kids, right? That’s about it. Kitty, once she’s approached with the prospect of a not-quite-appetizing extramarital affair with a not-quite-appetizing (married) man named Michael whom she meets at a trade function, becomes dissatisfied with satisfaction, and then sets about reorienting her life so she’s not so “happy” (yes, with the quotation marks) anymore. And if this means making everyone else around her miserable (and it does)... well, any general will tell you some casualties are inevitable.
As, for that matter, is almost every minute of Coxon’s play. Its rampant predictability, mated with an almost complete lack of dramatic action (except for one subplot, I’ve already described the entire story), makes for an evening of navel-ogling self-importance that’s been passé ever since the door slammed at the end of A Doll House. Merely trying to discern whether the 131 years since that play’s first production feels longer or shorter than Coxon’s barbaric two and a half hours is a task far too difficult to impose on any audience member at any play.
It’s possible that the problems with Happy Now?, which are at best tangentially related to the direction (by Liz Diamond) and performances, were less evident in London, where the play premiered at the National Theatre last year. (This production has come directly from the Yale Repertory Theatre.) Perhaps English theatregoers - or even the English in general - have been less steeped than we have in the rise of feminism and the evolution of the notion that a woman’s self-worth isn’t and shouldn’t be defined strictly by the men and children in her family.
In America, however, women finding and establishing themselves in what is still a male-oriented society has essentially become a subgenre of entertainment, counting 9 to 5 (the movie, thank you, not the Broadway musical), Thelma and Louise, Lifetime TV, and countless other examples in between. We’re long past the point where an acknowledgment of the struggle is sufficient as a replacement for a strong narrative that addresses the struggle. But an acknowledgment - and at that, really not much more than a nod - is all Coxon provides.
So when Kitty (Mary Bacon) becomes “incensed” (yes, with the quotation marks) by Michael’s indecent proposal, we’re expected to accept that her life is so barren a wasteland that it could be set ablaze by a single spark. But this happens in the very scene, before we meet Kitty’s loutish husband Johnny (Kelly AuCoin), who gave up a good-paying job to teach punctuation at a public school, and see how comma-tose he is toward recognizing her needs. It’s also before we meet Kitty and Johnny’s married friends, Miles and Bean (Quentin Mare and Kate Arrington), a more resigned and more on-the-edge couple. It’s even before we meet Kitt’s mom June (Joan MacIntosh), who’s coping with the impending death (or at least hospitalization) of Kitty’s father. And it’s of course before we meet Kitty’s witty gay friend Carl (Brian Keane), who’s trudging through relationship crud of his own.
Yes, in addition to the two women who grotesquely reflect Kitty’s own imperfections, there’s even a gay comic sidekick. That’s the level on which Happy Now? operates, and from which it constantly implores patience and understanding for the thoroughly unlikeable woman at its center. Bacon does everything she can to soften Kitty’s edges, but is limited by a role that just wants to gripe all the time. (Kitty’s hissy fit after overhearing a men’s discussion of La Vie Sexuelle de Catherine M. - which stretches credibility by itself - plays as an excuse to have an apron-throwing scene, not because her anger emerges naturally from her husband’s oppression of her.) Most of the other actors, particularly AuCoin, show remarkable restraint at not letting their characters become the caricatures they’re right on the edge of; only Wilson is a full-out brute, but in fairness, Coxon’s conception of Michael leaves him no other opportunities.
More realistic characters would greatly help in defining Kitty, and likely the play as a whole, but would also dilute her presentation as a woman who is the only outpost of sanity in a world of swirling gender chaos. As such, the character becomes less pitiable than pitiful, a run-on sentence desperately in need of a full stop. And, yes, her husband teaches punctuation. Draw your own conclusions. They can’t possibly be less obvious - or less obnoxious - than the ones Coxon wants to shove in your face, decades after you’ve ceased needing to hear them.