A mid-century Broadway staple was the bourgeois comedy in which a typical American family would struggle to cope with changing mores, whether they be the impossible years of adolescence or a seven-year itch. Now largely absorbed into the TV sitcom, genre returns to legit with “The Pursuit of Happiness,” Richard Dresser’s musings on the midlife tendency to look back in anger at roads both taken and not. More a series of linked, Feiffer-esque sketches than a cohesive play, it offers laughs and knowing nods, especially for baby boomers.
Dresser’s characters, types rather than fully rounded individuals, inhabit Tom Buderwitz’s cross-section of a suburban home that seems more dollhouse than lived-in dwelling. Aud is invited to see itself in such familiar situations as the despair of harried homemaker Annie (DeeDee Rescher) when accomplished but stiff-necked daughter Jodi (Joanna Strapp) announces she has trashed all her college apps. Going to college, says Jodi, would be the first sellout toward becoming as soulless and materialistic as the ‘rents, a classic trope of ’60s comedy.
Determined to redeem, through her daughter, the lost promise of her own college years, Annie hooks up at a class reunion with old classmate and admissions officer Spud (Preston Maybank) — yet another type, the erstwhile BMOC-turned-alcoholic loser — in the hopes of launching a quid pro quo that will end in Jodi’s acceptance at the old alma mater.
Meanwhile, amiable office drone husband Neil (Matt Reidy) is haunted by Jodi’s admissions essay comment that “dad has no friends,” prompting him to reach out to co-worker Tucker (Tim Cummings), a dour, unsocialized schlub who thinks a brief drop-by grants him the status and privileges of boon friend of the family.
Play offers little in the way of action or suspense. Jodi’s rebellion is thin and undermotivated, the stakes aren’t very high, and there’s no doubt what will transpire.
Fun derives instead from confrontations among the quintet similar to the skits that such Second City alums as Nichols & May would improvise and later script around such themes as “What is happiness?,” “Who is happy?” and “What the hell have I done with my life?”
Much of it pays off because of Dresser’s finely developed talent for observational humor, especially in the hands of Rescher, a driven, whisky-voiced force of nature whose very hair trembles with indignation when she’s crossed. And Cummings’ geek seems to be the product of five different individuals’ body parts sewn together in the garb of a sixth. We can’t take this homunculus out of “Office Space” as seriously as we’re eventually asked to, but he does amuse.
Helmer Andrew Barnicle does less well in guiding the others to the middle ground between realism and caricature that Rescher and Cummings inhabit effortlessly. He directs Strapp to too hard an edge, making her 11th-hour turnabout tough to swallow, and indulges Reidy in an anguished cry of pain for his endangered marriage that would be over the top in an Arthur Miller play, let alone here.
Nevertheless, it’s not long before Neil is zapping intruders in his vegetable garden with a stun gun and Tucker is announcing that he is Jodi’s unlikely inamorato, thus restoring the previous mode of genially exaggerated silliness.
When all is said and done, “The Pursuit of Happiness” is designed, like its Broadway forebears and most sitcoms, to reassure rather than provoke. Play raises complex issues about barriers to contentment in the modern world but stops short of considering those issues’ darker implications. Desire to send us out smiling is more or less achieved, but at the price of muting the social satire.
Play is the middle-class entry in a trilogy on the topic of happiness, the first and third to deal with bluebloods and the poor, respectively. Dresser is to be congratulated for recognizing that class is as much a conflict source in the U.S. as race or gender. Still in question is whether his critique in the other plays will carry any real sting, or whether he will remain in “Pursuit” of everyday pieties and easy answers.