Everyone wants Carol Mulroney to be happy. Her father, husband, friend and potential lover all want the heroine of Stephen Belber’s new play, world preeming at Boston’s Huntington, to simply be I’m OK/you’re OK with life. They get annoyed with her resistance and sadness, and she gets annoyed with them for living their lives in denial. Ultimately, the audience gets annoyed at all of them — and at the play.
There could be dramatic potential when those who seek quick fixes through faith, fantasy and positive thinking face real-world events and people with problems too severe for just-say-yes solutions. But Belber doesn’t go much beyond the obvious stalemate, creating characters and scenes that may be quirky at times but are repetitive, far-fetched and as simple-minded as those the scribe is criticizing.
Belber’s metaphor-crammed play (elephant butts, the undersides of bees’ wings and rainbow vaginas are among the creative imagery) takes place on the rooftop of Carol’s building — a favorite place, she says, because she can get a beautiful overview of things without seeing the flawed details of everyday life. Also, roofs are “edgy,” she says ominously. But Rachel Hauck’s blank slate of a set poses little threat — or interest. Ditto Alexander V. Nichols’ starry-starry-night backdrop.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that someone eventually takes a fall and the rest attempt to pick up the pieces, grapple with their individual guilt and try to figure things out — without really succeeding.
The 32-year-old Carol (Ana Reeder) tells the aud right off that she’s looking to align her life with other people’s wants and needs, an approach no doubt destined for disaster. She says she instead feels more connected to her dead mother, whom she recently discovered committed suicide when she was a child. Her suicide note simply read, “No.”
But it seems everyone wants Carol to say yes. On the fateful night in which the play takes place, Carol’s can-do, pot-smoking father (Larry Pine), who runs a cosmetics firm, is trying to make over his relationship with his daughter. He suggests to his top salesman, Ken (Reuben Jackson), that he’s in line to be vice president and oh, by the way, if he wants to marry his daughter, who is already wed to a man also in line for the job, that would be OK with him.
It’s clear that excruciatingly self-aware Carol is unhappy with her marriage and her life. Carol’s sardonic artist friend Joan (Johanna Day) is having an affair with Carol’s once-wild husband, Lesley (Tim Ransom). He wants to have children, but since Carol doesn’t (at least not with him, the sparkle having left their marriage), he decides he now wants to grow potatoes and be a honey farmer. In an attempt to “re-essentialize” his life, Lesley’s going back to basics. He wants her to believe in him as a matter of faith, and everything will be all right. Carol feels Lesley is missing the point.
Everyone except Carol has coping mechanisms for life: alcohol, romantic fantasies, denial. But they don’t seem to work so well when faced with a real-life tragedy.
Ultimately, the play is like being trapped in a self-help seminar, with a clinically depressed person surrounded by people looking for the express train to Pleasantville.
Under helmer Lisa Peterson, Reeder tries to give the title character as much charm and humor as possible, but after a while, her musings become a bore. At least her character is somewhat understandable and sympathetic, however; most of the other characters simply strain credibility.
Despite many mentions by Carol of his exciting “psychotic-but-cute” youth, Ransom’s Lesley lacks any hint of past danger and weirdness. Jackson unsuccessfully grapples with making sense of his contradictory and ultimately silly character — the control-freak businessman who is also a hopeless romantic who wants to chuck it all in after one encounter and escape to Turkey.
Day makes the most of her wise-gal lines and the character’s not-so-secret despair and desperation. But pity the actress required to give a staggeringly vile, ridiculous monologue of self-loathing near play’s end that manages to obliterate whatever decent denouement the production hopes to achieve.
More compelling is the father-daughter relationship; Pine brings dignity, honesty and originality to a role that easily could be ponderous or absurd.
In the end, it’s clear not only how little these characters know Carol Mulroney but how little they know themselves. The problem is the audience isn’t likely to care about any of them.