Happy Worst Day Ever
nytheatre.com review by Amy Lee Pearsall
August 14, 2011
Adolescence is hard. It is hard to live; it is perhaps even harder to watch. As we see young people doing things that remind us of our younger selves, we wish we could choose an alternative ending for both ourselves and those we are watching. Memories of angst-filled tween years—fitting in neither here nor there—come rushing back with Arlene Hutton’s play Happy Worst Day Ever, currently showing at the 4th Street Theatre as part of this year’s New York International Fringe Festival.
Fans of Hutton (Last Train to Nibroc) will be familiar with her character-driven work. The plot here is little more than slice-of-life. Tutoring sessions, classroom tableaus, a failed birthday party and a reality television showdown all feature, but it is more about the drama that fills adolescence than it is anything else. In this ensemble of four adult actors playing sixth graders, we find the usual suspects: mean girl Glorie (Dana Brooke) who flings the word “like” around with unconscious abandon; her BFF and echo box Emma (Kelly Pekar); class clown Chris (Jacob Moore) who spends most of his time planning odd experiments with cockroaches; and Jacob (in a sentient performance by Mark St. Cyr), the brainy, socially awkward young man who always does the right thing in hopes that his actions may somehow bring his father home from the armed forces sooner than later.
In a nod to what the kids are wearing these days, costume designer Chad Phillips festoons the cast in patterned Converse, bedazzled tutus over leggings and legwarmers, skulls, plaid, pink, purple, reality show T-shirts, slouchy caps and hoodies. Set designer Roy Jones provides the actors with four simple wooden chairs and a board to suspend across the top when a table is needed. He also dresses the upstage area with a fabric backdrop featuring a swirl of stars that would seem to indicate the Milky Way. While it certainly serves as a tie-in with the huge star-shaped earrings that Phillips has chosen for the girls in this production, I did wish for something that might have provided more of a sense of place. Grant Cambridge’s soundscape could also perhaps be better focused. While he offers electronic guitar riffs during transitions—none too coincidentally reminding those of a certain age of the puberty-driven sitcom Saved by the Bell—he also makes the odd pre-show choice of a cappella R&B tunes to set the mood.
Director Mark Lutwak mines some empathetic moments and comedic gold out of the cruelty of which only children are capable, but the charm of this play is also its downfall. Despite some character growth, the piece never really goes anywhere. We get bad days—indeed, even Worst Days—but know that in the grand scheme things, these small dramas will become footnotes in the characters’ personal histories. In this gentle one-act, Hutton briefly gives us back the gift of our younger selves, but stronger plot points might help this work to stick in the audience’s memory, thus avoiding the same fate as unexercised math skills.