Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Flawed Happy Intrigues and Entertains
Fortyish Alfred and his wife Melinda have been invited to a dinner party at the New York City loft (artist's studio and residence) of Eduardo, Alfred's long standing best friend. The divorced Eduardo wants them to meet his new girl friend Eva, a 22-year-old sculptor who has moved in with him. Alfred, a failed would-be writer, and Eduardo, a successful painter, teach at the same mediocre college. Alfred and Melinda are the devoted parents of 14-year-old Claire, who is severely disabled with cerebral palsy. Alfred, who has lovingly helped Melinda to adjust to Claire's disability, spends copious amounts of time reading to her.
Alfred arrives alone at Eduardo's studio (Melinda has had to wait at home for the arrival of Claire's "baby sitter"). Eduardo has stepped out to buy wine for dinner. Eva, having just gotten out of the shower, greets Alfred in her bathrobe. Eva is both kittenishly provocative and hostile to Alfred ("I guess dinner is the price of my living here"). Oddly enough, she tells Alfred that she had a parole officer when she was fifteen; that her brother committed suicide "in his senior year"; and that she had "a fella" who beat her, poured gasoline onto her bed, and then came to her bed threateningly holding a burning candle. Alfred is soaking wet and dripping all over the floor. He is a victim of a hostile character lurking in an automobile downstairs who intentionally speeds through a deep puddle, soaking pedestrians about to enter this building). Alfred removes his pants at Eva's request. She brings him sweat pants, but these and other of her actions are laden with sexual innuendo.
Alfred is the model of a perfectly balanced, well-adjusted individual. This ticks off Eva ("I don't trust happy people ... I think they're devious ... They're lying to themselves, and everyone around them. I only trust people who are unhappy. Authentic people.") Over the course of the evening, Eva mercilessly pounds at the vicissitudes in the lives of Alfred and Melinda (particularly of the effect that caring for Claire has on their lives), while insidiously undermining Alfred and Eduardo's friendship ("He said you were this really happy guy ... 'He's a cheery fucker.' His exact words."). The smitten Eduardo is first blind to Eva's predations and, ultimately, forgiving of them.
The above is only a small portion of the pain and humiliation which Alfred will face before the inevitable breakdown of his content or contented façade as Eva, and, I think, author Robert Caisley would have it. (On the title page of the play, Caisley quotes Lytton Strachey: "Happiness is the perpetual possession of being well-deceived".)
Happy has sharp, witty dialogue and stirring conflict. It engages our interest by raising important, rather universal issues in regard to how people cope with the sudden, disappointing changes of course to which we are all subject.
There are a couple of surprises which Caisley has saved for the final moments of this 95-minute one-act play. However, they lack their intended relevance and resonance to provide a meaningful boost to the author's premises.
The performances are rock solid. Michael Irwin Pollard is a totally at ease Alfred who inhabits himself and his life with unquestioning content. Anyone will break down when under sufficient emotional trauma. However, when Alfred reaches his breaking point, Caisley suffuses Alfred with attitudes in regard to his unseen daughter which are antithetical to a man of his character. No matter the level of frustration, as written, Alfred could not have the hatred for Claire with which Caisley fills him.
Susan Maris elicits from the viewer both the repulsion and enticement of Eva. Both in Maris' performance and Caisley's script, Eva has the intelligence, personality and history to be the disturbed and unhappy, cleverly destructive wretch that she is.
Mark Light-Orr projects an image and temperament that make for a convincing portrayal of the passionate, self-centered, aging artist that is Eduardo. Wendy Peace shows us the serious collateral damage which Melinda suffers from Eva's onslaught without pulling focus from the central conflict of the play.
On an existential level, the view that happiness can only be attained by (self) deception is undeniably tenable. However, Happy does not operate in that realm. The idea that happiness cannot honestly be found in ordinary, difficult lives in which youthful dreams have not come to fruition (which is what seems to be expounded here) is insufficiently supported. I would posit that it is unsupportable. To wallow in misery over the limitations of an ordinary life is not honestly facing one's disappointments, it is simply a manifestation of being unable to cope. If author Robert Caisley means to say something else, he has failed to get his message across.
Again, resident Set Designer Jessica Parks is out of control. Her magnificent set is so large and detailed, and so attractive and inviting (two-level loft with exposed brick and stucco walls, a terrace-like fire escape, sixteen paintings and three sculptures, and a skylight) that it is likely receiving rental inquiries from potential tenants. Director SuzAnne Barabas has maintained a lively pace and obtained an integrated ensemble performance from her fine cast.
Happy is a smart entertainment, clearly worthy of the development efforts of the National New Play Network.
Happy continues performances (Evenings: Thursday, Friday, Saturday 8 pm/ Matinees Saturday 3 pm, Sunday 2 pm) through June 30, 2013, at the New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, New Jersey 07740; box office: 732-229-3166; online: www.njrep.org.
Happy by Robert Caisley; directed by SuzAnne Barabas