Perhaps it's due to subtle discrepancies between the middle-class cultures of Britain and the U.S., or maybe American playwrights have lately developed a superior knack for making this sort of self-deprecating yuppie navel-gazing enjoyable and even insightful (the work of Itamar Moses
and Melissa James Gibson
comes to mind), but Lucinda Coxon
's Happy Now?
(at Primary Stages through March 21) struggles to shed any new light on the nature of contemporary bourgeois malaise. "The world that these characters occupy," Coxon explained in a 2008 interview
at London's National Theatre ahead of the play's premiere there, "was a world that I saw every single day... and that I never saw onstage." Whether or not that situation has changed so significantly in the last two years, which certainly seems to be the case, her particular version of thirty- to forty-something angst, depression and self-pity is all too familiar—references to The Simpsons
and Will & Grace
only underline the most obvious precedents.
The squabbles, breakdowns, animosities and disappointments of our wealthy Londoners cluster around and occasionally ripple outwards from Kitty (the terrific Mary Bacon). Stressed out at work—a cancer charity she finds herself running when her boss is diagnosed with cancer—and irritable at home—where husband Johnny (Kelly AuCoin) is equally on edge, engrossed in his new job as a teacher—she also deals with a button-pushing recluse of a mother (Joan MacIntosh) and an estranged father who likely won't live to the end of the play. These problems seem petty compared to the practically Gothic hatred and cruelty that passes between their friends Miles (the deliciously mean Quentin Mare) and Bea (Kate Arrington). Both couples have children, none of whom appear. A very token gay best friend, Carl (Brian Keane), rounds out the core of stock characters. The majority of the cast is excellent, though their inability to convincingly maintain English accents seems all the more reason to drop the play's otherwise strictly cosmetic British-ness and set this production in the U.S.
More fundamental problems stem from the writing, which, though very funny in its most quippy, dynamic passages, piles conflict into the chasm between the poison-tongued alcoholic Miles and weepy Bea, while reserving none for Kitty and Johnny. The latter two initiate arguments as if out of generic obligation rather than deep-seated resentment or unhappiness. Nothing of theirs is ever truly at risk, never so bad that it's worth scrapping. The gravity Coxon lends to their situation outweighs the actual gravity of their situation. Bea and Miles, conversely, are so pitted in their hatred that any reconciliation is clearly impossible from the outset—during their first appearance he says to his wife: "Bea, you look like you're trying to poo out a pine cone, backward." Without any tensions or doubts, the couples' bickering is tedious on its own terms. When the four come together the disagreements and attacks take on something of an edge.
The play's twinned matrimonial conflicts blossom during two dinners, the first of which starts pleasantly and ends abruptly, the second of which begins in a state of disaster and only gets worse. The ensemble's bantering, teasing and chastising throughout these scenes loses some sharpness in Narelle Sissons' distractingly cheap-looking set, which, appropriately, works best when it serves as a discount hotel or becomes a backdrop for well-integrated video projections. Indeed, this production's most memorable passages come when Coxon gets us away from these vaguely defined problems of middle-class domesticity. Two such occasions are dinner party stories about visits to the zoo recounted by Carl and Miles (the latter inspired by the former), which reveal more about their characters and predicaments than any amount of arguing. Similarly, we only gain a complex understanding of Kitty's character during her three trips to charity conferences throughout the play. Here she meets Michael (a hilarious C.J. Wilson), a conference-circuit lothario who balances the duties of home with the pleasures of the road. His is the only substantial solution Coxon can offer to the cycles of stress and anger that plague our likenesses onstage (theater audiences being, generally, what they are), and as Kitty considers his proposition Happy Now?
marks its funniest, most emotionally earnest and raw moments. Sadly, those won't be enough to keep her audience happy.
(photo credit: James Leynse)