All Our Happy Days Are Stupid: Theater review by Helen Shaw
Sheila Heti's “novel from life” How Should a Person Be? chronicles a period in which the Toronto-based writer was failing (sometimes amusingly, sometimes painfully) to complete a commission for a play. That project forms a tight knot of frustration in her book, and the memoir ends with her drama seemingly scrapped. But that same play has now been hustled out of the bin and onto the stage, resurrected by talented young Canadian director Jordan Tannahill and realized as the appealingly shaggy All Our Happy Days Are Stupid. The result is an interesting mix of clever and self-amused, a kind of Ionesco-lite adventure that dissolves into a haze of drifting charm.
All Our Happy Days Are Stupid has a shambolic, everybody-do-what-you-can ethic, ambling its way through an absurdist, faux-naive fable about two families that bump into each other on vacation. In Paris, 12-year-old Jenny Oddi (Lorna Wright) meets her classmate Daniel Sing (Nicholas Hune-Brown), and as they're shouting to each other in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, the Oddis (Naomi Skwarna and Alexander Carson) manage to rub the Sings (Jon McCurley and Becky Johnson) the wrong way. Daniel vanishes; Ms. Sing grows obsessed with Ms. Oddi; Ms. Oddi experiences a crisis, and abandons her family for escapades in Cannes. Throughout, a strolling player (Henri Fabergé) sings songs by Dan Bejar, which offer us droll wisdom like: “The future's yours, no way to lie / It is not yours, it is a replica…”
The first act generates its zany energy by tapping into the danger of the adolescent abroad—it’s like a kid's story that keeps turning dirty. When a man in a bear suit accosts the Oddis to invite them into a threesome, Ms. Oddi cries, “Anyone can see they're a pleasure!” rather than driving him off with blows. The second act pivots away from the daughter to focus on Ms. Oddi's jaunt to Cannes, and—this may remind some of a similar turn in Heti's novel—the writing picks up heat in response to sexual adventure. Skwarna has a wonderful erotic drawl, and does a lovely job of slipping out of reach whenever Johnson's adorable Ms. Sing tries to pounce on her. When we turn back to Jenny's story at the end, it seems a shame.
Heti is interested in adulthood (“Being a grown-up, everything matters,” marvels Daniel), and the play's insistent whimsy can sometimes distract us from her best adult insights, which also happen to work best comedically. Late in the play, for instance, a gorgeous little creation shows up: brilliant young Kayla Lorette, muffled in a big gray beard, playing Hobbled Man. Her short speech about how loneliness can make you connect with your pets makes the whole audience lean forward, laughing in delight. The guy in the panda suit? You can see the cliché in the absurdity. Hobbled Man is the real, just-so-slightly painful thing.
The production looks like a million Canadian dollars, thanks to Rae Powell's clever cartoon-cutout set and Juliann Wilding's black-and-white costumes. The Kitchen, though, works against Heti's play; a huge cube of black space hanging ominously around the set swallows some of the show's sweetness and light. Some of the production's tang also sours when one of the show's sponsors, the eyeglass company Warby Parker, hawks its wares in the lobby after the show. (It seemed that half of the young audience on Wednesday night was already in Warby Parkers, many posed artfully above properly hip mustaches.) The play feels like a game among friends, and it may need an intimate, low-rent environment to seem truly lovable. I do so hate it when I go to hang out with my friends…and they try to sell me sunglasses for $95 a pair.—Helen Shaw
The Kitchen (see Off-Off Broadway). By Sheila Heti. Songs by Dan Bejar. Directed by Jordan Tannahill with Erin Brubacher. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 55mins. One intermission.