Choking on Happiness
nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
August 15, 2004
It’s hard to see, at first, why the two one-act plays that comprise Choking on Happiness were paired. The Best It’s Ever Looked, by Annie Marks, is about a middle-aged couple—successful doctor Michael (Tod Engle) and social-studies teacher Diane (Barb Halas)—and their fraying marriage, while Homesick, by Victoria Janis, dramatizes a chance encounter at a resort bar between Margaret (Liza Bryn), a guest, and Lili (Carol Mennie), a quasi-legal immigrant from Romania who works as a maid. They’re directed by different people (Vincent Marano for Best and Miriam Weiner for Homesick). The pieces share no actors. There’s a complete (and very awkwardly handled) set change between the two.
I think what’s meant to tie the pieces together is that characters in each are facing up to unhappiness, and admitting out loud for the first time that their lives don’t satisfy them. But here lies the problem: the characters are little more than caricatures, and fairly unlikable ones at that. The problems they’re having with their lives are things we’ve heard a million times before. Diane has spent her whole life cooking and carpooling and being a doctor’s wife instead of fulfilling her goals and dreams. Michael has taken refuge in a tawdry affair. Margaret, on vacation without her children, realizes she might be depressed and doesn’t really miss her kids all that much. In 2004, it’s hard to imagine these issues breaking new ground. Lili, the cleaning woman, is less gratingly self-absorbed than the others, but no less stereotypical. I found nothing compelling or unique in these stories, nothing to get me invested.
There is, of course, poetry to be found in lives of uninteresting or unlikable people, but neither Marks nor Janis has found a language or style to convey that poetry. Weiner’s well-paced direction of Homesick does make the play more interesting to watch, whereas under Marano’s direction, The Best It’s Ever Looked seems to drag. The writing overall is competent and workmanlike, but ultimately I found the evening completely mediocre—and yet it played to a standing-room-only house at its first performance. To me, this kind of show—slice-of-life writing, adequately solid acting, but not a risk taken throughout—is an uneasy fit with the anything-goes, freewheeling FringeNYC atmosphere. The crowds lining up to see Choking on Happiness may well disagree.