Mark Anderson Phillips (left), Rosemary Garrison (center) and Alex Moggridge contemplate the void of harried modern lives in Lucinda Coxon’s Happy Now? at Marin Theatre Company. Below: (from left) Moggridge, Mollie Stickney, Phillips, Kevin Rolson and Garrison. Photos by Ed Smith
The smiling cartoon woman on the poster – the one juggling the trappings of modern life such as a cell phone, a brief case, a lap top, a glass of wine and a baby – is a comic figure. She’s about to slip on a skateboard, but she’ll go down being what society wants her to be: a productive super gal.
The poster says comedy, but in actuality, Lucinda Coxon’s Happy Now? Is something of a modern tragedy. The 2008 drama had its premiere at the National Theatre in London and is only just receiving its West Coast premiere from Marin Theatre Company.
Directed by Artistic Director Jasson Minadakis, the production is sharp where it should be as well as hard and cynical for most of its nearly 2 ½ hours. The cast, though beset with fluctuating British accents, creates vivid, highly recognizable characters who are easy to relate to and who make us cringe frequently.
There are a few laughs along the way as we watch two households unravel or come dangerously close to it, but this is serious stuff. There’s a whole lot of misery, anger and stress pouring off the stage, and to be honest, it’s not pleasant.
The fact that the play is well directed, well acted and well designed (Melpomene Katakalos created the appealingly abstract kitchen/living room set, Kurt Landisman designed the lights and Wesley Cabral hits the photo realism hard with the video projections) only heightens the realism and thus increases the discomfort.
What we have here are a lot of privileged white people whining. When they exhibit a sense of humor, it’s usually tinged with acid, and their affection for one another, when it’s visible, is strained at best. The main character, Kitty (Rosemary Garrison), has one vital relationship, and that’s with her gay lawyer best friend, Carl (a good-natured Kevin Rolston). But even that relationship seems more of a comfortable convenience than a necessity.
Kitty works for a company searching for a cure for cancer. She has two children (whom we hear but never meet) and a husband, Johnny (Alex Moggridge), who has forsaken the business world to teach in public schools. On the topic of his work, Johnny tends to turn into a righteous ninny, especially when friends dare to mention Catholic school.
Kitty and Johnny’s closest friends (with close still being a far distance here) are Miles (Mark Anderson Phillips) and Bea (Mollie Stickney). He’s an acerbic ass who sees the world this way: “Three things keep people going: drinking, fucking and telling lies.” She’s been beaten down by his negativity and doesn’t exhibit much personality until the marriage finally crumbles.
The play only really sparks to something resembling life when Kitty encounters Michael (Andrew Hurteau), a dumpy philanderer who propositions her at a conference. He’s a player because he has to be, but he’s astute. The mere fact that he pays attention to Kitty’s emotional being makes her putty in his hands – eventually.
The dinner party scenes have genial rhythms, but nobody actually seems to be having a good time. And there’s a reason for that. These are uninteresting, passionless people. They’re in life but not of it. Nobody talks about the arts or athletic activities. Politics is barely addressed. And forget about spirituality.
That’s probably the most depressing aspect of the play. Not one of these characters seems to have even the most remote spiritual inclination – not religious, not New Age self-help, not anything. They’re wallowing in a void, scrambling to grab hold of one another but shocked when the other hollow shells are unable to save them. So they turn to alcohol and reruns of American sitcoms.
None of this is new, but Coxon gives it a sheen of existential exhaustion that makes it seem freshly dispiriting.
The play’s title, Happy Now?, is, of course, ironic. We seem to be happy. We pretend to be happy. But if we’re to believe these characters, we’re really anything but happy and have few tools to extract ourselves from the modern-day muck and mire.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Lucinda Coxon’s Happy Now? Continues through Dec. 5 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $33-$53. Call 415 388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org for information.