Uncle Bob (Paul Ready) has a smile so eerie it’s close to a leer. That’s why, when he shows up uninvited at Christmas lunch, tension rockets. That lurch in tone is typical of Martin Crimp’s fiercely non-naturalistic “In the Republic of Happiness.” A self-styled “entertainment in three parts,” it’s as confrontational for audiences as it is for its characters. There are stretches of laugh-aloud satire but even Dominic Cooke’s exhilaratingly confident production cannot disguise its often derivative nature nor fully elucidate the nearly gnomic final sequence.
It begins in known territory, with familiar and familial gripes being aired across three generations gathered around the dining table. Crimp is building a group portrait of wholly self-absorbed people. Even the initially sympathetic grandmother (Anna Calder-Marshall), a family doctor, is revealed to revel in the knowledge that her beloved taxi rides cost more than a garbage collector can earn in an hour.
The over-bright tone seems borrowed from Ionesco and the latter’s absurdism is further invoked when Bob arrives and eviscerates the family by passing on a litany of hatred toward all present from his partner Madeleine (Michelle Terry).
Just as the tensions reach their peak, the walls fly out and the actors reappear with new characters. Seated smiling on a row of TV-chatshow chairs, they deliver a stream of one-liners as if to camera. Their navel-gazing attitudes to contemporary dilemmas are smartly intercut to comic effect. They smugly present themselves as refusing to see their actions as being political while also indulging in the fashionable need for therapy-speak self-examination.
The strength of this section is undercut by being painfully indebted both to Beckett’s trailblazing “Play” — in which characters in purgatory repeat their self-justification to an invisible interrogator — and Caryl Churchill’s “Blue Heart” whose linguistic repetitions it echoes to less winning effect. Long before the overextended sequence has run its course, its point has been made.
In a visual coup de theater, Miriam Buether’s typically imaginative set then splits, allowing a chilly room to rise up through the floor for the final standoff between the returning Bob and Madeleine. The former, now appearing to be struggling with dementia, is terrified of being left alone. The futuristic setting and the assumption of control by Michelle Terry’s icily cruel Madeleine suggests Crimp’s play is arguing for a greater personal and shared responsibility. Everything ends with a “Happy Song” whose very bitterness underlines the satirical intent.
The balanced precision of the playing is a tribute both to the cast and to Cooke’s typically deft, unobtrusive ensemble work. But although Crimp’s typical fascination with breaking down traditional form is admirable, his experimentation sails close to the level of arrogance given its lack of interest in the limits of the audience’s attention span.