Brian Jacobson

Happy Now? at the Milwaukee Rep

By - Oct 24th, 2009 11:31 am
Brian Vaughn, Torrey Hanson and Deborah Staples in a scene from "Happy Now?" Photo by Jay Westhauser.

Brian Vaughn, Torrey Hanson and Deborah Staples in a scene from “Happy Now?” Photo by Jay Westhauser.

In the modern-day world of Lucinda Coxon’s Happy Now?, interiors of the homes of professional families are decorated by Crate and Barrel. In the Milwaukee Repertory Theater production that opened Friday (Oct. 23), the entire back wall of the stage is stacked with blond furniture.

The protagonist, Kitty (Deborah Staples), meets a sadsack-yet-charming philanderer (Lee E. Ernst) at a conference. Their encounter leaves the married woman unsettled. Her friends are about to fan her doubts about domestic bliss.

Back home, she reveals this meeting to gay best friend Carl (Torrey Hanson), but not to her oblivious white-bread husband, Johnny (Gerard Neugent). Soon, we meet Johnny’s best friend, Miles (Brian Vaughn), and his wife, Bea (Julie Briskman). Miles is a bit of a masochist and alcoholic. Bea is a matching passive-aggressive more worried over pale paint choices for a new kitchen than over a crumbling marriage.

Kitty (Deborah Staples) considers giving in to Michael's (Lee E. Ernst) offer of meaningless sex.

Kitty (Deborah Staples) considers giving in to Michael’s (Lee E. Ernst) offer of meaningless sex.

There are children, represented by recorded voices, so the adult parents live the kind of lives seen only in soap operas. Kitty wars with an erratic, stubborn and aging mother. Many of the characters seem on paper to be archetypes set in motion. Luckily the acting far exceeds the writing.

To Coxon’s credit, the conversations sound authentic. So do the English accents (coached by Jane Pink). Still, the dialogue falls short of Shakespearean contemplation, and nobody really changes by the final scene. The message of the play is pretty clear: be happy with what you’ve got.

The script requires frequent change of scenery, and director Jon Jory and crew responded nimbly. Instead of curtains or black-outs, four white-clad ensemble members hand needed props to characters and place furniture on the fly. While this offers a fluid performance, it also makes characters look privileged — as if they have servants — instead of middle-class.

The ensemble cast performs admirably. It’s hard to pick any actor as a standout.

Hanson overcomes what could have been a thankless caricature as the gay best friend. While the playwright doesn’t seem to know what to do with the character, it presents a different side to the discussion of coupling. Staples bears the biggest burden as the central character and holds up with great believability right down to the final chagrined look.

Happy Now? covers much of the same territory as TV shows (like thirtysomething) and films (like Judd Apatow’s married couples in Knocked Up and Funny People), but that doesn’t make the material any less valid. The Milwaukee Rep’s actors make the characters flesh-and-blood, with each one breaking their own heart onstage and then sitting in the rubble every performance night.

Happy Now? plays at the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater in the Patty and Jay Baker Theater complex now through Nov. 15. For more information on the play and to reserve tickets, visit the Milwaukee Rep website or call 414-224-9490.

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