Julie Marie Myatt's “The Happy Ones” is a look at suburban, superficial happiness in the homes of the comfortably affluent of Southern California in the polyester, happy-face mid 1970's. It is also an exploration of how an ordinary individual overcomes terrible personal tragedy in order to go on, in order to re-map a terrain of cluster-bombed values and decimated character to somehow find the grace and substance to continue his journey. The play is a true dramedy, with a fair bit of light amusement surrounding its pursuit of real questions about how we forgive grievous injury, how we recover from the loss of everything that matters to us, how friends, no matter how close or well-meaning, can never fully be with us in these most intimate difficulties.
David Gassner directs this four person cast quite well, keeping the pace tight and bringing authenticity to several of the key emotional scenes. K. Brian Neel plays the central character of Walter with an almost frenetic energy, making the early, idyllic family scenes nearly cartoonish with his broad expressions and comic body movement. Fortunately, he also develops the character so that by the second act we see a man stripped of almost all that easy self-satisfaction and contentment and gradually allowing himself to engage the much deeper challenges forced on him.
My biggest criticism (of both the acting and directing) is that in the scene immediately following his discovery that his life has been pulled out from under him, I had the sense that I was seeing a man who had suffered a great misfortune, but not one who had been instantaneously smashed by calamity. That his personal devastation develops over the later action of the play was very important, but I really felt we needed to feel that moment of impact much more strongly. Everything changes. Right then.
By placing the action of the play in 1975 the playwright sets the story in a period of equally dynamic socio-political contradiction and dramatic conflict. The hip and happening social style of the disco era was offset by the winding down of the tragedy of Viet Nam. The self-important now-ness of pastel leisure suits and funky records set the scene for trivial relationships and avoiding any sort of bummer that could bring you down. I thought it was a little easy that the playwright used that period detail to get most of her comedy, and that in doing so she also avoided having to find humor in the real relationships between characters. I think that was a lost opportunity.
Shawn Law, as Walter's best friend Gary, was spot-on in creating exactly the sort of man who seemed to occupy the corner of every dance floor of the era. With his well-groomed mustache and correctly long hair, his tight stretch pants and overly decorative shirts, this was a man who had bought into every detail of the times. Being a hip minister with a mail-order ordination and virtually no spirituality, he is profoundly ill-suited to bring any comfort or insight to his friend's profound troubles. He's barely able to bring anything beyond a bottle of cheap chianti to his girlfriend, Mary Allen, played with a gratifying lack of artifice and sympathetic directness by Macall Gordon. Her great contribution to this play was in being the person who best understands exactly where she is in life, of being herself rather than trying to find the role she's supposed to play.
Finally, David Hsieh does a superb job of playing Boa, a Vietnamese refuge who travels through life moving from one disaster to another, never quite sure exactly what his part is in the catastrophe, but certain that wherever he goes, whatever he does, the situation will get worse. In becoming Walter's unlikely best friend he finally achieves a tentative kind of resolution, but the resolution for all these characters is equally tentative. What I especially liked about Mr. Hsieh was I did not see him acting, did not see the effort of performance, but rather simply the man in the circumstance. That is always the center of the best drama.
Ultimately, “The Happy Ones” was not really a satisfying
play, in spite of good performances and good production values. The problem
(for me) was really with the script. Setting the show in that era of laughable
fashion and inauthenticity only underscored for me the artifice of the script.
I was far too aware of the writer's manipulation, the words placed on the page
rather than coming from the character's mouths, dramatic choices the writer
made for the sake of a well-constructed play, rather than discovered in the
choices made by the individuals themselves. In too many speeches I saw the
playwright's composition rather than spontaneous words; in too many comic bits
I saw the writer deciding this would get a laugh; in too many dramatic moments
I felt contrivance rather than catharsis.
To be sure, this is a talented writer who knows how to handle the stage,
but this is a ultimately a play about illustrating a theme, not discovering
meaning. “The Happy Ones” has sincerity and insight, but what it lacks is