Opening Nights: The Happy Ones

Two characters linked by tragedy—and driven by play-writing formulas.

As we've seen in the movie Crash and many a play (including Rabbit Hole), car accidents conveniently help screenwriters and playwrights force their characters into involuntary reckonings. Somebody kills someone else on the road, and the opposing driver/survivor camps have to deal with the aftermath. It's the dramatic equivalent of instant noodles, seasoned with mildly differentiated character flavors: pork, shrimp, beef, chicken. Seattle Public Theater does the best it can with The Happy Ones, deploying competent acting and considerable energy, but Julie Marie Myatt's script is strictly off-the-shelf. Her formula of loss, guilt, redemption, and renewal dictates her characters' actions; it's the opposite of organic theater. When we meet appliance-store owner Walter (K. Brian Neel), he's boogieing down to '70s pop, shaking his butt, and preparing for the birthday party of his bitchy but beautiful wife (heard from offstage but never seen). Kids are in the pool, drinks are being made—it's idyllic Southern California in 1975. What could possibly go wrong? In the following torrent of microscopically short scenes, we learn that Walter's wife and kids are killed in a car accident caused by Vietnamese refugee Boa (David Hsieh), who's mourning the death of his own family back home. Thus the occasionally touching but painfully predictable relationship between Boa and Walter, which eclipses Walter's friendship with amiably wacky minister Gary (Shawn Law). Gary is determined to cheer Walter up, but his mirth ironically drives Walter straight back to Boa's somber company. Boa's behavior swings from grovelingly humble to jaunty to outrageous, per the playwright's plot agenda. He's never a unified, plausible character. The show is not without cute banter, mostly supplied by Macall Gordon as Gary's good-time girlfriend. Why not have four Bloody Marys? "I'm the bride, I need my vegetables," she declares. And there's even a golf-ball- thieving raccoon (unfortunately offstage). Otherwise, it's lines like "Please let me cave in like other people." From tragedy to reconciliation—just add hot water.

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