South Coast Repertory, ever committed to programming plays reflecting its community, finds a little gem in Julie Marie Myatt’s “The Happy Ones.” Not all its pieces mesh, but the central confrontation between a middle-class denizen of Garden Grove and a Vietnamese immigrant is wonderfully played in the manner of “The Visitor” and other recent character-driven indie pics.
Certainly among the happy ones circa 1975 is Walter Wells (Raphael Sbarge), cheerful churchgoer, appliance store owner and happily married father of two. “This is the dream, right here,” he exclaims to best friend and pastor Gary (Geoffrey Lower), who’s plagued with commitment issues but fully buys into Walter’s vision of American bliss.
That bliss is perfectly personified in Ralph Funicello’s orange shag carpeting and Angela Balogh Calin’s brazenly polyester leisure wear, with the overall design achieving photorealism short of caricature.
Of course, no sooner does a character aver, “We’ve got it made!” than God, or the playwright, drops the other shoe. While Walter grapples with an irksome crank caller, a car goes astray on a freeway ramp in the path of his loved ones. In a twinkling, he’s wretchedly alone among knickknacks from happier times.
Walter’s wordless grief, and resistance to cheering by Gary and party-hearty girlfriend (Nike Doukas), are familiar from Hallmark Channel soapers. What sets Myatt’s effort apart is her handling of the constantly surprising dynamic between survivor and perpetrator.
Errant driver Bao Ngo (Greg Watanabe), a recent arrival from Saigon’s fall, is now beyond remorse: “I want to die … I am going to hell; my heart is dead.” But first he begs on his knees to repay his debt, and no sooner can you say “Gran Torino” (another recent pic on a similar theme) than he’s cleaning the house and cooking Walter’s meals, a silent (“I am invisible”) but ineffable presence.
Martin Benson, a helmer unafraid of silence and suspended energy, masterfully charts the two antagonists’ gradually discovered brotherhood. Sbarge’s first-scene ebullience can’t help but attempt to break the surface, finding a formidable obstacle in Watanabe’s chilly formality (leading to droll, unexpectedly humorous line readings).
Myatt reveals backstories in deft, believable strokes, and through the men’s ups and downs never indulges in excess — that is, until Gary and Mary-Ellen show up, as if dropped in from another, goofier play.
Friends certainly want to cheer up other friends, especially the formerly happy ones, and a playwright needs to set life forces against grief’s big chill. But these neighbors’ intrusions feel off-kilter. At first, Mary-Ellen urges Walter to “stay in bed, don’t shower”; thereafter, she never ceases to yank his chain. Since she fails to acknowledge her tactical shift, and he doesn’t call her on it, both ploys seem arbitrary.
A lengthy golf course snafu, and an argument over Tim Conway (well, it’s 1975), seem inserted out of Myatt’s drawer. The comedy relief reaches the point of annoyance, disturbing the delicate balance of two quiet fellows we enjoy getting to know (and, happily, are always allowed to rejoin).
The crank phone calls are annoying, too, until the shattering payoff when Walter finally engages the persistent inquirer about having Prince Albert in a can. In one of the loveliest pieces of writing and playing you’ll see anywhere, Sbarge demonstrates what a fine father Walter was, as well as the continuing depth of his mourning. There are no easy answers to the problems Myatt explores, but she offers hope that they may one day emerge.