Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

The Happiness Lecture
Philadelphia Theatre Company

Also see Tim's review of Les Misérables

Bill Irwin
In his newest show, Bill Irwin sets out to define happiness. Having seen the show, I'll offer my own definition: Happiness is ... Bill Irwin.

Mind you, it's hard for Irwin to find happiness in a world like the one depicted in The Happiness Lecture. The great clown can't even get his own body to behave when he tries to stand at a lectern and speak; he has to use the microphone stand as a pump in order to stand up straight. When he goes to bed, he can't sleep - even reading the program from the play he's performing in won't help him drift off. When he turns on the TV, he sees a weatherman - played by Irwin himself - standing in front of a map that shows most of the United States on fire. When he walks over to the TV, his own head somehow gets stuck inside the set. When he turns off the TV, he sees smaller versions of himself (thanks to some wonderful puppetry). Hooded ninjas follow him almost everywhere he goes - they disturb him and bewilder him, but he seems to find them strangely enticing. And then there are the people who question his every action - some of whom are in the audience. "They told me this was gonna be a clown show," says a befuddled usher with a thick Philly accent; "I don't see any clowns!" (Fittingly, the actress playing the usher, Jennifer Childs, later turns up onstage in full clown makeup.)

One of the themes Irwin explores in The Happiness Lecture is the creative process, something that he knows is important yet ripe for satire. While he does a few routines he's done in past shows - operating curtains with a remote control, tap dancing to "Tea For Two" - he's not above poking fun at himself for going back to the well. "We old-timers know that the old stuff is the most dependable," he says as he does his walking-down-steps-in-a-steamer-trunk bit. ("I'd been waiting for him to do that," my companion said to me.)

Irwin and his talented co-stars tear down the wall between performer and patron by performing in nearly every section of the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, and making one patron (played with deadpan bewilderment by Makoto Hirano) work extra hard to earn his seat. They even tear down the wall between performer and critic by bringing on an "assistant dramaturg" (Lee Ann Etzold, in a hilarious mock-condescending performance) to critique the show as it's going on, asking questions like "Is the clown all of humanity?" and "What does the Asian swordplay mean?" (Her definition of performance art: "If you think you may be watching performance art, you probably are.")

"Where's the plot?" asks Etzold at one point, and it's a fair question. Late in the show, Irwin actually does introduce a story - the tale of two prehistoric men, Ig and Og, who have different attitudes on life. This is the "happiness lecture" of the title, adapted from a New Yorker story by John Lanchester. Unfortunately, it turns out to be the night's one serious misstep. Irwin draws a contrast between the spontaneous and free-wheeling Ig and the anxious, nervous Og to make a point about the nature of contentment. "Nagging worry is your birthright ... joy is maladaptive." Happiness, he notes, is like tonsils or an appendix - "It's not without purpose, but it can be removed fairly easily." The point Irwin tries to make isn't particularly persuasive or lucid - and Irwin's delivery is so boring that it brings this whirlwind of a show to a halt. It's sad that The Happiness Lecture would have been nearly perfect without, well, its happiness lecture. Perhaps a different story - or a more interesting staging of the existing story - might help.

But that's a minor disappointment. The show returns to sure footing by concluding with "The Spaghetti Number," a wild skit that has to be seen to be believed, full of the comic ingenuity that is Irwin's trademark.

The technical aspects of The Happiness Lecture are exceptional, especially Jorge Cousineau's video and sound design, Roman Paska's puppets, and Rebecca Lustig's costumes. And Irwin and the PTC staff are to be commended for pulling nearly all of the show's cast from Philadelphia's vibrant acting community. Not only do Childs, Etzold and Hirano make vivid impressions, but there's also inspired work by actor/puppeteer Aaron Cromie and dancers Melanie Cotton and Nichole Canuso, among others.

Sure, it's a dangerous world out there - those ninjas carry some pretty sharp swords. But it's your attitude toward that world that makes the difference in whether you find happiness or not. The issues Irwin raises are important ones, but he tackles them without a hint of self-importance. That's part of what makes Irwin so lovable, and part of why you'll leave The Happiness Lecture with a lot to think about, and a lot to smile about. It's incessantly inventive and delightful.

The Happiness Lecture runs through June 15, 2008 at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 South Broad Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $46 to $58, with discounts available for students, seniors and groups, and are available by calling the box office at 215-985-0420, online at, or by visiting the box office.

The Happiness Lecture
Conceived & Performed by Bill Irwin
Set Design: Kelly Hanson
Lighting Design: Nancy Schertler
Costume Design: Rebecca Lustig
Sound & Video Design: Jorge Cousineau
Original Arrangements: John Forster
Puppet Design: Roman Paska
Puppet Coordinator: Martin Robinson
Dramaturg: Warren Hoffman
Stage Manager: Victoria L. Hein
Casting: Lois Kitz
Collaborator/Production Stage Manager: Nancy Harrington

Bill Irwin, Ephrat Asherie, Nichole Canuso, Jennifer Childs, Melanie Cotton, Aaron Cromie, Lee Ann Etzold, Makoto Hirano, Cori Olinghouse

Photo: Mark Garvin

-- Tim Dunleavy

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