Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Los Angeles

Pursued by Happiness

Mark St. Amant, Liz Herron, Tom Knickerbocker and Avery Clyde
The geek romance in Keith Huff's world premiere play Pursued by Happiness did not win me over. We're dealing with two researchers at Eli Lilly, who meet when one is the only attendee at the other's lecture (and we're pretty sure he only came for the free food). He chews his bagel when he's talking; she loudly blows her nose mid-sentence. Although over 40 and a biochemist, he can't bring himself to say any words dealing with sexuality—he speaks of a drug's surprising side effect as giving the test subjects "multiple ... multiples." She wears glasses and has her hair drawn back in what is simultaneously a severe and untidy ponytail. And all I can think is that both Huff and the Road Theatre Company are capable of so much more than the tired stereotype of intelligent people who are painfully socially awkward.

Nor is there really any romance in this romance, which is the real trouble with the play. Our couple actually interacts twice before their first date, and (as we later learn), that's enough to make Frank want to spend the rest of his life with Julie. I honestly can't figure out why. Both of those meetings are extremely uncomfortable. Perhaps it's just the desperation factor—that, at this stage of their lives, Frank figures Julie is his only remaining option—but the play doesn't give us any real reason to root for Frank and Julie as a couple. Indeed, it doesn't even give us any reason to root for either of them as people—first date conversation turns to the most wicked thing they've ever done, and Julie's wickedest thing is really pretty lousy, when you think about it.

This is all setup, though, as the meat of the play comes when Julie announces they must meet each other's parents. Two scenes follow (with one pair of actors taking on the roles of both sets of parents) in which we learn all of the baggage Frank and Julie carry around with them, the reasons for that baggage, and whether Frank and Julie are still willing to stay together once they've learned these truths. The problem, though, is that since we have no reason to really care about Frank and Julie, we don't have any emotional investment in them getting together. (And since what we're seeing is the product of a relationship that gets too close too fast, it doesn't really seem like Frank and Julie have any reason to have any emotional investment in it either.)

There's solid acting from Avery Clyde as Julie; she's particularly expressive in the chillingly empty looks she gives when her father is talking to Frank. Tom Knickerbocker is quite good as both fathers, effectively creating portraits of two very different men. Mark St. Amant is a touch too awkward to be a realistic Frank; his mannerisms reminded me of a toned-down version of Sam Anderson's brilliant performance in The Bird and Mr. Banks, another Huff play at the Road which St. Amant had directed. It was terrific in the dark, heightened reality of that play, but even toned down, seems out of place here. And while I completely believed Elizabeth Herron as Julie's mother, she felt just a smidge over the top as Frank's.

While it seems a bit minor to mention, I can't let this review go without pointing out the effective comic work—and it's a combination of Huff's script, Adam Flemming's projection design, Jeremy Pivnick's lights, and David B. Marling's sound—in creating the location of the couple's first date, the "Jungle Factory," which is clearly standing in for the Rainforest Café. With some light and sound cues, and one quick line that left me trembling with the laughter of recognition, the show neatly illustrates every reason why the Rainforest Café is a lousy place for a first date.

There is potential in this play, but without first establishing Frank and Julie as a couple we want to see succeed, it isn't realized.

Pursued by Happiness runs through May 14 at the Road Theatre Company in North Hollywood. For tickets and information, see

The Road Theatre Company -- Taylor Gilbert, Founder/Artistic Director & Sam Anderson, Artistic Director -- presents Pursued by Happiness by Keith Huff. Directed by Robin Larson. Executive Producers Taylor Gilbert & Sam Anderson; Producer Michael McKiddy; Assistant Director Darryl Johnson; Second Assistant Director Jessica Rotter. Scenic Design Craig Siebels; Assistant Set Design Juslin Lieb; Lighting Design Jeremy Pivnick; Costume Design Jocelyn Hublau; Sound Design David B. Marling; Projection Design Adam Flemming; Prop Design Ashley Slater; Dialect Coach Linda de Vries; Publicist David Elzer; Stage Manager Maurie Gonzalez.

Julie Moore - Avery Clyde
Liz Orlis/Alice Moore - Elizabeth Herron
Howard Orlis/Ted Moore - Tom Knickerbocker
Frank Orlis - Mark St. Amant

Photo: Deverill Weekes

- Sharon Perlmutter

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