'Happy Now?'

It's always a joy to watch other people's marriages crash and burn.

It’s always a joy to watch other people’s marriages crash and burn. Lucinda Coxon shamelessly feeds that guilty pleasure in her tart domestic dramedy, “Happy Now?,” originally seen at the National Theater in Blighty. Pinning her plot on a happily married career woman whose vague stirrings of discontent seep into the lives of her spouse and their friends, Brit scribe delivers her barbed insights into modern marriage with pointed satiric humor. But the parts prove more satisfying than the whole of the piece, which is too shapeless to sustain the critical analysis of this cold-hearted crowd of narcissists.

Coxon’s finest character coup is not her beleaguered heroine, Kitty — who is smart and spirited, but a bit of a whiner in Mary Bacon’s rather pinched perf — but Michael (C.J. Wilson), a rumpled roue with an uncanny knack for spotting high-achieving women in need of a romantic pick-me-up.

A senior executive for a major charity, as is Kitty, Michael prowls professional conferences and symposia, making out like a bandit with a non-threatening line promising guilt-free laughter and love-making.

“I’m just this out-of-shape clown,” claims this shrewdly disarming predator. “I’ve no vanity.” Wilson, who is built like an overstuffed pillow, plays the part with great baggy charm — and, like he says, an utter lack of vanity. Who wouldn’t fall for this teddy bear?

Well, Kitty, for one. She nails him as “a tiresome opportunist who tells clever women they’re beautiful and beautiful women they’re clever.” (The well-aimed zinger is key to Coxon’s style.) But she’s smart enough to realize Michael has seen through her defenses and spotted an unfulfilled need she hadn’t acknowledged herself.

Unnerved by the insight, Kitty allows herself to examine the nature of her discontent, which has a lot to do with her husband, Johnny (Kelly AuCoin), a high-powered lawyer who opted out of that game for more rewarding work as a teacher.

A sensitive actor, AuCoin really takes Johnny to heart, awarding him stars for his good works, while applying the rod for his neglect of Kitty and his suspiciously tender loyalty to his best friend, Miles (Quentin Mare).

Miles is a bitter, cynical, self-loathing drunk — if unnervingly attractive in Mare’s louche perf — and his wife Bea (Kate Arrington) is a birdbrain. “She’s just one of those people you want to be cruel to,” according to Miles, a connoisseur of cutting remarks. Despite the serious cracks in their marriage, Coxon has so little sympathy for this mismatched pair that she elicits none from the audience, either.

The playwright is even more contemptuous of Kitty’s monumentally egocentric mother, June, but Joan MacIntosh makes such a delicious monster of this harpy that she thrives on her own spite. Whatever feelings scribe has to spare, she wraps them lovingly around Kitty’s best friend, Carl (a dear friend indeed, in Brian Keane’s generous perf), whose own gay relationship is on the rocks, should anyone in this self-obsessed crowd care to notice.

As Bea frequently mentions — and is sharply registered by Narelle Sissons’ coolly dehumanizing set design — it’s a constant battle not to become invisible in this claustrophobic society.

It’s hard to fault Coxon’s character work, especially since everyone gets a nice party piece to deliver (and with much panache, under Liz Diamond’s scrupulous direction) before the play is done. Carl has a lovely monologue about the mysterious beauty of the zoo after dark. Johnny, the devoted teacher, explodes when he learns Miles and Bea have taken their daughter out of his school and enrolled her in a private church school. Miles has his big drunk scene, and colorless Bea gets an aria on the joys of decorating in shades of beige.

But once they spill their guts, no one — not even Kitty — benefits from the catharsis. For all the upheaval in their lives, there are no definitive changes to show for it. And wouldn’t you know it, for all the erotic vibes in the air, not even Michael gets laid.

Happy Now?

59E59 Theaters; 199 seats; $60 top

Production

A Primary Stages presentation of a play in two acts by Lucinda Coxon. Directed by Liz Diamond.

Creative

Sets, Narelle Sissons; costumes, Jennifer Moeller; lighting, Matt Frey; sound, David Budries; projections, Jeff Sugg; props, Faye Armon; fight direction, B.H. Barry; dialect coach, Pamela Prather; production stage manager, Matthew Melchiorre. Opened Feb. 9, 2010. Reviewed Feb. 4. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.

Cast

Michael - C.J. Wilson Kitty - Mary Bacon Johnny - Kelly AuCoin Miles - Quentin Mare Bea - Kate Arrington Carl - Brian Keane June - Joan MacIntosh
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