I can’t say what was in Robert Caisley’s mind, but his 2011 play Happy (now playing at the Hollywood Fringe Festival) strikes me as the sort of thing a writer writes after seeing an Edward Albee play and getting the impression that a terrible party is a sure-fire premise. Two couples gather for dinner, one of them only a month together; the new girlfriend’s a doozy: sexually provocative, maybe crazy, and half the age of her boyfriend, whose staid, married friends are taken aback. It’s the old story of middle-aged middle-class middlebrows with lives predicated on pretense vs a brazen artistic firebrand who, filterless, always speaks her mind. Caisley throws in some old resentments and two offstage traumas: a neighborhood bully and a special needs child, never seen but referred to as if at some point they’ll become relevant. Everybody drinks too much, confessions are made, masks dropped, truths revealed. Automatic dramatic tension, no?
In fact this boring play has no drama. It has not even the fallback of clever dialogue. Nothing that matters can happen, because none of the characters wants anything, or has anything of value to lose or gain. These are not people but ciphers in an intellectual equation. Only one of them has a discernible personality, and she is entirely annoying. It is impossible to see what anyone would find attractive in this troublesome creature beyond the physical, but the casting of an unready Katharine Diaz in the role is explicable in that she is toothsome and, incidentally, the producer.
Christopher Violette and Eric Gutierrez play a bland white stereotype and a bland Latin stereotype; their portrayals are honest but uninspired. The very good Lauren Letherer makes what she can of her repressed housewife, but like the others she looks as if she’s done her work alone, without the assistance of a director who could offer useful prompts in the way of motivation or color.
Rachel Parker’s direction of the production, entire, is no less banal. Despite a grid full of available instruments, Justin Huen’s lighting looks as if he gave Parker the option of a single special – absurdly chosen – in an otherwise flat wash. Taking a seat before the show even begins, one notices an error: a team that knew it was going to a fringe festival has attempted a photo-realistic set (designed by Annette Diaz), but because it has to share the space with other acts it has left the walls and floor bare and black. There’s a couch and a coffee table and a bar-rack, but no door – apparently, one enters this upstairs apartment through an audience. Space is a naturally occurring limitation common to festival circumstances, but that’s not an excuse for suspending a physical reality when the illusion becomes inconvenient. It is instead a challenge to figure out what sort of show, in what sort of mode and style, would work in the given situation.
This is a show in which a character waves a loaf of cheap French bread and chatters about the hard-to-find Armenian grocer who supplies this delicacy, as if its cellophane bag didn’t bear a large white bar-code sticker of the sort you see at Ralph’s. In this show, a tidy if prosaic living room complete with knick-knacks and a Japanese screen also features lengths of pipe from Home Depot (again with the price tags) in case someone wants to bash something. Maya Star’s makeup effects to simulate an injury get a lot of production, because blood is exciting, but a puddle of water on the floor doesn’t have to be there, even though the characters refer to it, stare at it, and get a towel to mop up its nonexistence. A late moment of onstage violence was underrehearsed and blown on opening night, bottoming out a presentation as wanting as its text.
Saturday June 13 at 3 p.m.
Friday June 19 at 8:30 p.m.
Sunday June 21 at 1 p.m.
Thursday June 25 at 10 p.m.
at the Let Live Theater, 916 N. Formosa Avenue in Hollywood
for tickets visit www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/2161?tab=details