February 10, 2010

A Grumpy Response to "Happy Now?"

The folks at Primary Stages decided to celebrate their 25th anniversary by dedicating the season to female playwrights.  And you’ve got to give them credit for going beyond the usual suspects. They haven’t staged any Lillian Hellman revivals, Yasmina Reza leftovers or yet another quickie whipped up by Theresa Rebeck.  

Instead, over the past six months, the company has presented a Cusi Cram comedy that's driven by the prickly relationship between two sisters and Charlayne Woodard's one-woman show about a childless woman's relationships with other people's children. And last night, it rounded out the season with Happy Now?, an import by the British playwright Lucinda Coxon about a woman with a demanding job, difficult parents and a needy husband and kids.  I liked the first, missed the second and was totally turned off by the third.

Call me heartless.  Or a traitor to the sisterhood.  But I’ve had it with books, movies or plays where women discover that it’s tough to juggle their personal and professional lives.  D’uh?  And if a writer insists on working this well tilled soil, then she ought to try to come up with some fresh insights.  Instead what we get in Happy Now? is the same old same old we’ve seen countless times before.  In fact, I saw almost the exact same thing a couple of months ago when Playwrights Horizons mounted Melissa James Gibson’s This.

Just as in that also blandly named play, the plot of Happy Now? pivots around whether or not its female protagonist will or won’t have an affair to spice up her humdrum bourgeois life. The women in both plays have smart, quippy friends, wine-stoked dinner parties and the de rigueur gay best friend who is so faithful and, for all intents and purposes, asexual, that’s he’s always available to babysit whenever there’s a family crisis.

The cast in Happy Now?, lead by Mary Bacon as the frazzled heroine, is fine, particularly CJ Wilson in an entertaining turn as the would-be Lothario. Director Liz Diamond has found smart ways to turn the limited space at 59E59 Theaters to the play’s advantage. And I’ve no complaints about the technical team either. But I would still rather get a root canal without novocaine than sit through another two hours of a play like this one.

Of course, I know that one woman’s "too much" can be another woman’s "not enough." Coxon, who’s enjoyed a successful stage and screen career, says she wrote the play because its story “was nowhere to be found on stage.” (Click here to read an interview she gave London’s The Independent last year.)  My friend Joy laughed out loud all during the first act. And Coxon’s play was a hit in London last year and sold out its run at the National Theater.

Most of the New York reviewers loved This and the big-boy critics Charles Isherwood of the New York Times and John Simon at Bloomberg.com have kind things to say about Happy Now? too. But both shows just got on my nerves. I mean
don't women—and women playwrights in particularhave more to say than this? 

Maybe it’s because I don’t have kids.  Or because most of my gay male friends are in decades-long relationships and have active social and sexual lives of their own. Or because the very busy women I know just suck it up and get on with doing what they have to do. But all this yuppie whining just makes me grumpy. 


Unknown said...

I like it when you're grumpy ("you're still doing this?!") in your reviews.

Anonymous said...

Very nice and intrestingss story.