nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 5, 2010
Happy Now?, the new British import now ensconced at Primary Stages, is in practically every way a fine, well-crafted work of theatre. I have a serious reservation about the piece which I will get to in a minute. But let me say that Lucinda Coxon's script is literate and tightly plotted, featuring characters who are well-drawn and, in this production, very well played. Under Liz Diamond's effective direction, all seven actors deliver expert work; I am particularly excited to see the terrific actor Kelly AuCoin in a genuine leading man role off-Broadway, and his portrayal here of Johnny, the husband of Happy Now?'s protagonist, is nuanced and convincing. Kate Arrington, as one of the less likable characters onstage, also provides a savvy, centered performance. The production values, spare and elegant, serve the drama and Diamond's vision of it well.
The story revolves around Kitty, a young British woman who is barely holding a too-full life together. She's married to Johnny, who has recently left a high-paying job for the more fulfilling but less remunerative occupation of schoolteacher; the strain on the household budget certainly tells on her. They are raising two children in the accepted contemporary style of carting them to play dates and various activities and indulging them more (one imagines) than their own parents ever indulged them; this adds stress to her busy life, too. Finally, Kitty has a demanding job at a nonprofit, and her boss is very ill, resulting in her having to do more at work than usual.
So Kitty has a good deal to cope with. The play's title points to the elusive abstract thing that Kitty seems most to be missing in her life, namely, she's not feeling happy. A chance encounter with a middle-aged Lothario at a work-related conference seems to put a button on what's wrong with her: he offers her an afternoon of quick, semi-anonymous sex, and when she rebuffs him, rather than leave her alone, he tells her he'll be available whenever she realizes she needs him. The arc of the play is Kitty's journey toward that pivotal moment when she decides that this decidedly offbeat guardian angel must come to her rescue. What, if anything, she learns from her encounters with this man, whose name is Michael, provides the moral thrust of Happy Now?.
Providing counterpoint to Kitty and Johnny's troublesome yet static lives, Coxon introduces four other characters. One is Kitty's mother, a whining, difficult woman still furious with Kitty's dad for leaving them 20 years ago; she's a negative role model everybody can learn something from. Another is Carl, Kitty's gay best friend, jolly and long-suffering and, as gay characters still too often are in contemporary theatre, de-sexed and unlucky in love. Finally there are Miles and Bea, a married couple; Miles is a friend of Johnny's, someone he used to work with at his former high-powered job. Miles is one of those repugnant, arrogant, upper middle class guys who are becoming a staple of our pop culture, while Bea (the character played by Arrington), is a notch or two away from privileged, self-involved airhead. Bea actually proves to be the most self-aware person in this story, but I don't think that Coxon intends for us to like her very much.
Now we come to my personal issue with Happy Now?. I think that Coxon does intend for us to like and care about Kitty, but I never could. Kitty's life is challenging, no doubt about it; but she and the playwright who created her seem to lack a broader perspective. This is a play about seven relatively affluent white people who are dissatisfied with their lives, and as I have said before in some of my reviews, I just don't find that an interesting area of discourse. There are people in England and America—not to mention other, less wealthy areas of the world—who would be thrilled to have the problems Kitty faces instead of their own, particularly in this recession economy of ours. Kitty's failure to find happiness in an existence literally brimming with blessings—a loving husband! healthy children! a steady job!—smacks of self-indulgence and smug dissociation from the world around her. I can work up no empathy for this woman and her problems.
Which is not to say that Happy Now? isn't diverting or even occasionally insightful in its way. But the theme at the heart of Coxon's play—that we somehow need "permission" to be happy—says more about the inward-looking society it depicts than about what we in such a society can do to crawl out of our overprivileged rut.