SALT LAKE CITY — Alfred is happy, in spite of everything, at least that’s according to his best friend Eduardo. Alfred comes by Eduardo’s apartment on a rainy evening to have dinner with Edouardo and his new, much younger girlfriend, Eva. As the evening progresses it becomes apparent that Alfred and his wife, Melinda, have just and much rage and grief boiling beneath the surface as the flamboyant and aggressively honest Eva, even though on first impression it seems that “nothing pisses them off.”
Wasatch Theatre Company’s production of Happy by Robert Caisley is performed in a very small studio setting, and the action takes place in a single apartment. The set design by Kit Anderton beautifully creates an artists apartment in a dingy neighborhood. The apartment is decorated by the works of local Utah artists that are up for silent auction during intermission and after the show. The realism of the set adds to the feeling of intimacy. It felt like I was just eavesdropping on the goings-on in this apartment.
Happy is about how most people are living lives of quiet desperation, and if someone claims they are happy they are probably lying. This isn’t exactly a groundbreaking theme in art, and in less deft hands the material could have come across as heavy handed or juvenile. Director Jim Martin and the cast did a great job of taking the time to find and maintain the subtlety of the piece by putting the emphasis on the characters, rather than hammering home the theme.
I can’t remember the last time I saw such an excellent ensemble of actors brought together in a cast. Alyssa Franks is the scene stealer playing the part of Eva, a manic pixie dream girl (emphasis on the manic). She alternates between slinking across the stage in a towel, to giggling and flirting, to telling Alfred about her brother’s suicide with tears in her eyes all within a manner of minutes. And that’s just the first scene of the show. Eva manipulates the entire party. She is a giggling sex-pot puppet master, driving most of the action of the play. She asks direct personal questions, and then almost instantly forgets the answer. She plants seeds of doubt in Alfred’s mind about his friendship with Eduardo by insisting that Eduardo doesn’t know if Alfred’s wife is named Melinda or Belinda. It’s a difficult character to play, and it would have been easy to rely on broad strokes to portray her. However Franks is an actress who understands her character and her motives, even when they aren’t clear to the audience. Franks manages to infuse each of Eva’s dramatic mood swings with authenticity, which is vital to the play. Eva serves as a counterbalance against Alfred. Alfred sweeps everything under the rug. Eva is on fire with honesty. If she doesn’t feel real than there is nothing driving Alfred to confront his true feelings about his life. Franks does beautiful work as this character and it is a pleasure to watch.
The crux of the show rests squarely on Brian C. Pilling’s portrayal of Alfred. Alfred arrives at Eduardo’s apartment as a cheerful square. He’s also dripping wet because someone drove through a puddle and splashed him with water. It becomes clear that the guy did it on purpose, but Alfred doesn’t get mad. “No one got hurt,” he says, insisting on a silver lining even after the same guy splashed his wife as well. As the play progresses it becomes clear that Alfred is not as happy and patient as he appears. By the final act Alfred finally confronts all his disappointments in life, and finally expresses the pain and heartbreak of sacrificing his ambitions to be a writer in order to take care of a daughter with cerebral palsy. Pilling performs the monologue beautifully, but what is really impressive about his performance is that all that rage and grief from his final monologue is present in his character, just beneath the surface, earlier in the show. In the second act Alfred’s wife explains what their life is like taking care of their daughter Claire. She talks about how patient and reliable Alfred is. As his wife talks about him Alfred refuses to make eye contact with anyone in the room. His guilt over his disappointment and disgust with his life is visible in his physicality as his wife continues to gush about how great he is. Melinda talks about how she imagines what beautiful things are going on in Claire’s head that nobody can see, but it is also clear that Melinda also doesn’t have access to what is going on in her husband’s head either.
Pilling’s performance is so good that the dramatic monologues in which his interiors thoughts and feelings are revealed almost feels unnecessary. Everything he says was already there in his performances in the first two acts, and that is no small feat from an actor.
As Melinda, Michelle Linn Hall also does an excellent job of letting the audience know that she is struggling to hold her life together in the midst of her sick daughter and finally seeing the truth of her husbands feelings. However, Melinda—unlike her husband—refuses to crack. Hall is still able to convey that Melinda isn’t a simpleton. She has unrealized dreams, longs for escape just like her husband, even though she isn’t willing to face those feelings as explicitly as her husband does she is still a fully realized and complex character.
Happy is definitely worth seeing for the outstanding performances. It does contain adult language and themes (mostly language). It’s a small theater with very limited seating, so don’t miss out on the opportunity to see this unique and outstanding production.
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