Kelly AuCoin, Mary Bacon, Will Connolly, Brian Keane, David Andrew Macdonald, Joan MacIntosh, Quentin Mar, Katharine Powell, Nondumiso Tembe
British playwright Lucinda Coxon’s new play Happy Now?, which had its world premiere this spring at London’s National Theatre, begins with a sexist joke told in a hotel bar.
Our modern-day thirtysomething everywoman heroine, Kitty, has found herself face-to-face with the caddish but honest Michael, a fortysomething published researcher-slash-jokester who expresses his admiration of her presentation.
She’s a cancer research exec balancing her role as a mother with city-to-city travel as she attends an endless bevy of conferences; he’s just plain horny. She resists his advances during this encounter, but his offer remains “on the table,” he tells her, “right where you’ll want it.”
At home, Kitty’s marriage seems to be going just fine, if not entirely satisfactorily for either party; they’re coasting along. Both are working parents. Her husband Johnny recently quit his high-powered law job to be a teacher, leaving Kitty – already in charge of the household chores – as the primary breadwinner, a source of contention.
Johnny’s friends, married couple Miles and Bea, along with Kitty and Johnny (and Kitty’s gay best friend Carl), are typical London yuppies. Bea obsesses over what shade of off-white to paint one of the rooms in her house, a joint project she’s endeavoring upon with her husband. And Kitty and Johnny have taken care not to condition their kids with unnecessary gender stereotyping (an effort that backfires when her daughter requests a wedding gown-themed birthday cake).
The various characters’ strained friendships and relationships – at first glance merely a bit cracked – are soon split wide open as Miles and Bea decide to their daughter Hettie from the school Johnny teaches at in order to give her a faith-based education, a choice Johnny resents. Miles, while drunk, insults his wife until he’s thrown out of the house and onto Kitty and Johnny’s couch. Kitty is tempted by Michael at yet another work conference. And Carl finds himself hearbroken after a botched relationship with a younger man.
Coxon’s play, which trades in too-familiar types (the gay best friend, the alcoholic best friend, the sleazy older man, the TV-transfixed tots, the overbearing mother), manages to still seem surprisingly engaging. Though references to Will and Grace feel forced and fall flat, the characters nonetheless feel delineated enough to come across as individuals rather than mere mouthpieces.
As Kitty, Mary Bacon is the standout amongst a fine company. She manages to gain an audience’s sympathy one moment only to elicit their skepticism the next. The rest of the cast is similarly effective, particularly Joan MacIntosh as Kitty’s neurotic mother June, with whom Kitty stays while her dad (who walked out on her mother many years prior) is receiving a lifesaving operation.
Though the play attempts to address more serious issues – illness included – its woe-is-me attitude (Kitty shouts emphatically, “Is this it?” after rattling off a list of the mundane minutiae of her life) wears thin after a while. Older lech Michael returns for a second attempted liason, an encounter that serves as a catalyst once again for Kitty’s ruminations, but their relationship never rings as true as it ought to. All the while, the production moves at a steady pace as a result of Liz Diamond’s quick-witted direction.
Sarah Pearline’s set is spot-on, consisting of various detached bits of furniture – a pantry, a bedside table, a full-length mirror, a window – that raise and lower as the scenes shift seamlessly within the quasi-realistic landscape of the characters’ boxed-in lives. A number of exit signs flank the set in a “V” formation, the tiny stick-figure men on each facing away from center stage in mid-gallop, much in the same way each of the characters seems to be fleeing from his or her own routine existence.
Throughout the play, snippets of fairy tales are interspersed in the form of recorded dialogue played during scene changes, a choice that proves effective. At the play’s end, Kitty references the original Italian version of Sleeping Beauty (wherein Aurora is raped by the prince and the resulting children awaken her) as an example of just how sugarcoated and distorted some unsavory stories can seem before one takes a gander beneath the surface.
This idea serves as a perfect device in bringing the play to its conclusion. After all, her own life is one big misinterpreted fairy tale, and she’s the overwhelmed apron-clad protagonist. As Kitty realizes she doesn’t have to be unhappy, she settles in to watch some telly with her husband and his deadbeat alcoholic friend on the couch.
Happy endings, the play conjectures, come in a variety of different models. Hers may not be the shimmering, souped-up kind that she dreams of, but if she takes the time to enjoy what she’s got hers can be just as sweet. If the play’s not entirely satisfying, neither is our heroine’s life. “Is this it?” we may be asking ourselves. “Yes,” Coxon’s play softly replies.