Last season, Chicago scribe Keith Huff’s scrappy, gritty cop monologues helped Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig smash Gotham straight play B.O. records with “A Steady Rain.” As Huff walks the romantic comedy beat in “Pursued by Happiness,” his interest in the dark underbelly of the human condition proves unabated. This bold, risky genre-bender is enjoying an exceptional world premiere production from the Road Theater Co.Protagonists, both Eli Lilly Ph.D. biochemists, “meet cute” in romantic comedy tradition at a conference, when Frank Ortis (Mark St. Amant) is the sole attendee for a PowerPoint show run by Julie Moore (Avery Clyde) on the topic of “horizontal integration.” Amid the playful banter, more is clearly going on within these lonely fortysomethings than stock yearning, with Julie’s manner wound tighter than her hair bun as motormouthed Frank demonstrates near-autistic interest in getting to know her better. Back at corporate HQ, a chance encounter turns into a first date and an offer of marriage, which Julie astonishingly accepts on two conditions. There must be sex, executing a little horizontal integration of their own. And he’s got to meet the parents. It’s a classic setup, but what transpires in Cleveland (his folks) and Madison (hers) is less the farcical pre-nup encounter of Ben Stiller with father-in-law Robert DeNiro, than the occasion for a slow revelation of family secrets appropriate to a Neil LaBute melodrama. Bad enough when the Ortises (Elizabeth Herron and Tom Knickerbocker), manic ex-hippies, reveal a long-lost younger brother and grim medical news. But as Julie wryly and correctly predicts en route to the blowsy, surly Moores (essayed by the same actors), “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” As she proved in last year’s triumphant “Four Places,” helmer Robin Larsen is brilliant at believably transforming polite conversation into gut-wrenching revelations of character. She proves equally capable at guiding Herron and Knickerbocker through two very different but parallel parental horror shows. As for Clyde and St. Amant, they’re so perfectly cast, their roles so deeply inhabited, we forget they’re acting and just get carried along as two emotionally stunted intellectuals eminently illustrate their own behavioral hypothesis: Humans, neuroscience reveals, are genetically predisposed to a bliss from which they perversely keep running away. Espousing the theory, we realize, proves no impediment to slipping on the galoshes and bolting when happiness looms in practice. Through the limited but ingenious means of some Venetian blinds and two mini-turntables, designer Craig Siebels achieves startling scenic transformations. Jeremy Pivnick’s sensitive lighting reinforces every mood, along with Adam Flemming’s poignant projected display of multicolor waveforms Frank calls “the undulations of cosmic serendipity.” It’s far from the only instance of serendipity in this most absorbing entertainment.
Pursued by Happiness
Frank Orlis - Mark St. Amant
Liz Orlis/Alice Moore - Elizabeth Herron
Howard Orlis/Ted Moore - Tom Knickerbocker