Walter Wells is one of the happy ones. He has a nice house in Orange County with a swimming pool. He has a beautiful wife and beautiful children, seen in a framed poster-size color photograph above his mantel. He owns his own appliance store and enjoys the occasional or not-so-occasional night of dancing and too many cocktails with his friends. In fact, nothing bad has ever happened to Walter Wells. Everything is going his way. It’s clear from the beginning of The Happy Ones that playwright Julie Marie Myatt is setting Walter up for a fall.
As seen in Magic Theatre’s Bay Area premiere of the play, which debuted at South Coast Repertory in 2009, Walter is way too happy. He’s dancing around his living room, mixing cocktails and happily conversing with his offstage wife getting dressed for her birthday party and kids, who are playing in the pool. He cracks jokes with the kid who keeps prank calling his store. As he tells his best friend the day after the party, “This is the dream right here. We got it. This is it.”
Anyone who’s ever seen anything knows this is exactly like saying, “It’s quiet, too quiet,” in an action flick. In a cop movie it would be a line about being only a few days away from retirement, about to buy a boat and sail the world. It doesn’t help that a glance at the program will tell you that Walter’s wife and kids are not going to be characters in this play. When Myatt uses the timeworn trope of Walter preparing to really zing the prank caller the next time the phone rings, you know perfectly well that the call is going to be someone else with some very bad news. That’s what always happens in this kind of play.
And sure enough, like God with his faithful servant Job, Myatt takes everything away from Walter Wells, the guy who always did everything right and hadn’t a care in the world. Well, not everything — he still has his job, his house, his wealth, and his health, but he doesn’t have his family anymore. All it takes is one driver going the wrong way on a freeway exit, and they’re gone.
The play is set in 1975, and that’s amply evident in the avocado excess of Erik Flatmo’s living room set, the bright colors and wide collars of Christine Crook’s costumes, and a great mix of music in Cliff Caruthers’ sound design, from Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” to Randy Newman’s “Burn On.” Director Jonathan Moscone has a good time with the suburban decadence of the world Walter’s accustomed to, a world his friends still live in, contrasting it effectively with the eerie silence of his sudden solitude. But there’s nothing about the story that’s inherently a period piece, aside from how recent the Vietnam War was.
It’s all about how the habitually cheerful Walter deals with his grief and his friends’ misguided and ineffectual attempts to cheer him up. His best friend, Gary, is a Unitarian minister, but he’s useless at his job. He’s always hung over from partying the night before, and has no idea what to say to comfort Walter, well captured by Gabriel Marin in a childlike befuddlement bordering on buffoonery. He’s always grasping for the right thing to say, never quite nailing it.
Mary-Ellen, Gary’s new girlfriend, is never at a loss for words. In fact, they come way too quickly to her and are spoken without thinking. As a new neighbor, Mary-Ellen doesn’t want to be seen as the stereotype of the loose divorcee, but she does seem to want to live like one. Marcia Pizzo plays her as a flighty free spirit with infectious enthusiasm and a default mode of flirtatiousness.
Walter, meanwhile, just wants to be left alone, even though having been left alone is precisely the problem. His friends just irritate him, their normalcy seeming to taunt him with all he’s lost. Liam Craig does a good job balancing Walter’s habitual mild cheeriness with his simmering rage and deep depression. His only comfort comes from an unexpected place: the driver who killed his family, a Vietnamese refugee who begs for Walter to kill him, or at least to let him try to make amends.
Jomar Tagatac is hauntingly deadpan in his misery as Bao, who came from tragedy in his home country only to stumble into tragedy in his new life as well. Against his own objections and better judgment, Walter agrees to let Bao cook for him and clean his house, and the awkward, bittersweet companionship that grows between them is the most interesting aspect of the play. Misery loves company, as long as it’s miserable company.
The characters are thinly drawn and cartoonish, especially the happy ones, and much of the action of the play has a predictable Hollywood quality to it, so it’s hard to suspend disbelief enough to really feel any pain. But it’s often quite funny and sometimes touching in the points it makes about grief, if not its embodiment of it.
The title of the play is very much on the nose. Walter was one of the happy ones, and once his happiness is gone he can’t stand the company of happy people anymore. But the figure of Bao serves as a solemn reminder that he could have it much worse, and from Bao’s perspective he still lives in unbelievable luxury. Still, both have their deep, unfathomable sadness, and there’s a sort of brotherhood in that.
The Happy Ones runs through April 21, 2013 at Magic Theatre in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit magictheatre.org.
All photos by Jennifer Reiley.