The thumbprint of Alan Ayckbourn seems firmly impressed into the pages of playwright Lucinda Coxon’s Happy Now?, right down to the question mark in the title. And for much of its two-plus hours, Coxon’s tragicomic tale of the disintegrating lives of a group of soon-to-be-middle-aged parents (and a close gay pal who speaks of a life we never get to be terribly privy to) is awfully close to Ayckbourn’s level, with Coxon’s gift for lacerating snipes and inside-out bourgie observations.
As a piece of writing, Happy Now? is often blessedly free of “influence” flourishes, with the musings of its reasonably articulate characters only occasionally veering into writerly wish fulfillment. But it’s truly a pity that director Liz Diamond (operating on Narelle Sissons’s confusing, projection-heavy, busy-yet-not-at-all set) lets down the material by allowing it to breathe a bit too much. It’s admirable to allow for such naturalism here, but it also blunts some of Coxon’s writing and its button moments seem to suffer as a result. When our central couples get together for their dinner parties in a few key scenes (complete with “peasant food,” as one character calls it), the room seems airless when it should be buoyant and vice versa, and its slow-building crescendos of marital woe begin to feel unearned. When the crueler of the two husbands compares his wife to a “bloody double blank” domino, it should sting like a sunburn, but because the evening has been crawling to such moments of revelation instead of leaping, it barely warrants a little itch.
Thankfully, much of the cast is up to the challenge of the piece, with special mentions to Mary Bacon and Kelly AuCoin, sympathetically embodying the central couple dealing in near-death parents , kids’ birthday parties, and the former’s building desire to possibly stray. C.J. Wilson, in a few scenes as a rascally, married player in love with conquesting, is refreshingly conceived, and in a difficult role because of its sketchiness, Brian Keane brings shades of decency and color to the aforementioned gay hanger-on, blessedly without any swishy prancing or scene-stealing phoniness to make the character more than what it is. (The less said about Joan McIntosh as Bacon’s wonky, guilt-tripping mother the better, as she seems to have wandered in from the Grace Zabriskie School of Mannered Loons.)
Plays where couples squabble over kids and seethe with discomfort over being married seem all the rage of late (Tony-winning God of Carnage is still going strong on Broadway with yet another cast coming in next month), and soon we will tire of them just as we once did the vampire musical, but Happy Now? is certainly capable—at least for now—of resigned audience contentment, if not full-blown happiness.
Happy Now? opened tonight at Primary Stages in New York City and continues until March 6th. For tickets, click here.