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Theater review: 'The Happy Ones' at South Coast Repertory

October 6, 2009 |  6:30 pm

Hapo1 Hollywood loves unlikely buddies: Oscar and Felix, Elliot and E.T., House and Wilson. But in Julie Marie Myatt’s wry and affecting “The Happy Ones,” now at South Coast Repertory, tragedy makes for a very odd couple.

Orange County, 1975: Appliance salesman Walter Wells (Raphael Sbarge) lives the California dream: a beautiful wife, great kids, a pool in the back of his sunny modernist home. But when a disaster suddenly upends his life, Walter is utterly bereft. His best friends, Unitarian minister Gary (Geoffrey Lower) and uninhibited divorcee Mary-Ellen (Nike Doukas), harass Walter into pure survival, plying him with liquor and relentless good cheer. 

But it’s Vietnamese immigrant Bao (Greg Watanabe), the man who inadvertently destroyed Walter’s life, who becomes the only person that can help him reclaim it. At first Bao appears like a ghost in Walter’s now-silent house. Walter resists, but this slim, monosyllabic figure makes him soup, then plays the occasional game of checkers, and finally shares his own dark history. It’s to Myatt’s immense credit as a writer that this improbable friendship seems not only credible but inevitable. Who else would understand Walter except someone who directly shared his pain?

Myatt keenly observes the way one person’s tragedy becomes a Rorschach test for everyone around him. Like people spouting platitudes at a funeral, Gary and Mary Ellen desperately make nice around Walter, as though egg nog will dispel cosmic sadness. “Happy” wonders who is living the more authentic life, Walter or his swinging friends? Is it better to acknowledge pain or drown your sorrows? What’s your narcotic of choice — religion, sex or pro football? 

The production, deftly staged by Martin Benson, works hard to sweeten this story of loss. Ralph Funicello’s spotless living room set, with its cream sectional couch and orange shag carpet, almost feels too chic for a man who sells Maytags. We get to smile at Angela Balogh Calin’s period costumes, including Gary’s aggressively plaid golf trousers and Mary-Ellen’s denim maxi skirt. And Paul James Prendergast’s sound design includes 70s favorites, with Mungo Jerry’s “In the Summertime” used to excellent dramatic effect in a Christmas scene where Walter’s grief is pushed to the limit.

Myatt’s characters are so engaging that it’s easy to push them toward comedy, which tends to reassure rather than surprise us. As a hapless man of God, Lower effortlessly entertains, but we never learn why Greg became a minister, or what his resistance to marriage is all about. (Doukas, vivacious and droll, keeps the pace up.) 

And despite Sbarge’s efforts, Walter never becomes that compelling; he remains a simple man bewildered by life. There’s a particularly California blankness to “Happy” that feels both accurate and a little underwritten; it’s hard to care about Walter’s loss when you never quite feel the fullness of what he originally had.  The heart of the play is Watanabe’s performance. Perfectly pitched, his Bao gives the production gravity, directness, and wit; he conveys an entire inner life dusting a mantelpiece. Such craft makes this portrait of improbable intimacy between men a pleasure to watch.

-- Charlotte Stoudt

 “The Happy Ones” South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 7:45 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Ends Oct 18. $28-$65. Contact: 714-708-5555 or Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

Above: Nike Doukas, Greg Watanabe, Raphael Sbarge and Geoffrey Lower in "The Happy Ones." Photo credit: Henry di Rocco/SCR