Happy opens with the unexpected arrival of a soaking wet Alfred Rehm, who is greeted by a towel-clad hostess, Eva. It takes us a few minutes to figure out what’s going on—who these people are and why they are here—but it takes poor Alfred almost the whole of the remaining ninety minutes to fully appreciate the situation into which he’s been thrust.
Alfred has arrived at his long-time friend Eduardo’s home to meet the new woman in his life; his own wife, Melinda, is driving in separately, and Eduardo has gone out for wine and bread.
Which leaves Alfred, a pleasant man with a pleasant marriage and a pleasant job, alone with Eva, whom he later describes, quite fittingly, as an “emotional terrorist.” She is a decidedly original creation—part Sally Bowles, part Lilith. Every sentence Alfred utters she in some way challenges. She is mean and menacing, and then coquettish and winsome. She is utterly maddening, and nothing she says can be trusted.
Eduardo and Melinda arrive, some food is eaten, and a lot of liquor and wine is drunk. Tongues are loosened, clothes are lost (both Alfred and Melinda were badly splashed on their arrival by a sadistic SUV that is the scourge of the neighborhood), truths and lies and punches are exchanged. It makes for a thought-provoking evening as the nature of happiness is examined.
As always at New Jersey Rep, the set and lighting design immediately grounds us in the play’s reality: a boho, upscale artist’s home in a seedy neighborhood. Beauty, taste, and comfort inside; hints of a wilder, wetter, warier outside. It makes for a brilliant contrast with what’s happening to the characters, where their facades are all safe and shiny and comforting, covering up a much less pleasant and comfortable reality. Director Suzanne Barabas and her gifted design team of Jessica Parks (set), Patricia E. Doherty (costume), Jill Nagle (lighting), and Merek Royce Press (sound) have made some very wise decisions to highlight the ambiguities that the play exposes.
The actors are uniformly fine: Mark Light-Orr’s Eduardo turns from warm camaraderie to cold dismissal in chilling fashion; Wendy Peace’s Melinda, trying to enjoy this very awkward rare evening away from the full-time tending of a severely disabled child, is brave and poignant; Michael Irvin Pollard, as Alfred, clearly shows his character’s move toward self-knowledge; and Susan Maris, as the enigmatic Eva, keeps everything and everyone sardonically, ironically, off kilter and off course.
Until she doesn’t.
The play evokes Yasmina Reza’s Art with these oh-so-civilized old friends losing more than a bit of their civility on the alter of art, friendship, and understanding; and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, with its alcohol-induced gamesmanship. One of my companions also sensed a bit of Pinter in the mix. Playwright Robert Caisley has drawn on some very deep stuff, and his dialogue is smart and natural sounding. He has set up a very elegant character arc, and some very smart symmetry and symbolism. For example, all of the characters except Eduardo shed some of their clothes; all except Eduardo shed some secrets too. The damage wrought by Eva in the beginning is satisfyingly, satisfactorily counterbalanced at the end. But there’s an odd lack of clarity about time and personal histories, which the playwright should attend to: is it possible that these distinctly middle-aged people have been married only fourteen years (yet their child is clearly identified as being fifteen)? And how did they meet Eduardo, who is either much older than they (if they married straight out of college) or at least ten years their senior? And more disturbingly, is it fair to undermine the adjustments made by a man who has had to compromise to serve his family and save his sanity as hypocrisy? It attests to the intelligence of the writing that these questions can be raised: there is much here to ponder.