Theater review by Helen Shaw. Beckett Theatre (see Off Broadway). By Anita Loos. Dir. Scott Alan Evans. With ensemble cast. 1hr 35mins. No intermission.
The delights of this revival of the 1946 Anita Loos charmer Happy Birthday arrive in their own sweet time—both play and production make us wait for our pleasures. And honestly, where’s the rush? Certainly there’s no bustle in the Jersey Mecca Cocktail Bar on a rainy night; our proprietress, Gail (Karen Ziemba), is practically tucking her clients into their tables. In Gail, Loos (author of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) has provided the play’s giddy fantasy with a sober chaperone. Even after our hero, Addie (Mary Bacon), enters and has adventures that turn romantic and musical and thrilling, we still watch through Gail’s eyes—wryly and with a growing affection.
The Mecca’s regulars aren’t alone in initially worrying about the evening’s entertainment value. Director Scott Alan Evans starts awkwardly—we desperately need a realistic hubbub to stave off the quiet. Theater Row venues swallow life and noise; mimed conversations and mousy little Addie don’t seem like a match for the room’s dampening effect. Luckily, Addie’s a teetotaler who wants out of her shell, quickly discovering booze, wooing a bank clerk, spending her life savings and developing some very fast friendships.
The production, lit by the protagonist’s increasingly drunk perspective, gathers confidence along with its blossoming little ingenue. Bacon’s grave, kittenish face folds in fury, then opens in happiness, then opens still further in transcendent rapture. Loos knows this epiphany-through-gin won’t last long: She stacks the stage with disappointed dreamers. Still, it’s a measure of the play’s sweet humanism that all of us (and all of them) are eager to forget our so-called wisdom and rejoice along with Addie as she drinks down all the contents of Pandora’s box.—Helen Shaw