Lucinda Coxon’s “Happy Now?” at the Yale Repertory Theater plays like an entertaining and gripping marathon of a TV show about five 30-something professionals in London dealing with the difficulties of balancing work and family in a fast-paced modern world. Replete with characters we know and love — the gay best friend, the asshole who repents in the eleventh hour, the misguided but well-intentioned guy, the smart but somewhat neurotic female lead — it is a well-crafted sitcom dressed up and taken out to the theater.
To be fair, most sitcoms don’t deal nearly as deftly with serious, underlying themes — here, gender — as “Happy Now?” does. Coxon presents a picture of the way that gender still structures and bounds our interactions with all the nuance such an examination deserves. It is refreshing to see not a political treatise but a pointed series of scenes where there is always something uneasy that you can’t quite put your finger on. Take the play’s opening for example: the main character, Kitty, is hit on at a conference by a concupiscent male colleague. But the colleague is up-front about his lecherous ways, downright philosophical about them, actually, and we realize that we can’t really object to him in the way we thought we could, though there is something deeply troubling that remains in the power he has over her. Or later in the play, Kitty, deeply aggravated by her marriage, makes a wedding dress cake for her daughter’s birthday. She remarks that she tried to keep her kids away from all of that gender stuff, but that she walked into her daughter’s room when she was two and realized she was raising an Ivana Trump. It’s hard to pin down what it is that’s so troubling about the daughter’s cake request, but there is something unhealthy that can’t be fully excavated. It’s frustrating to leave without a way of articulating what’s so harmful about these gendered interactions (besides a distinct distaste for a “boys-will-be-boys” mentality), but the confusion feels appropriately lifelike.
Also quite realistic are the characters. Or rather, they feel real in the way that Ross, Rachel, Chandler and co. feel real. That is to say, they are larger-than-life archetypes, but the actors do well to lend humanizing specificity. But for a bit of sloppiness (one actor had to call line, and there was often too much silence), the acting is impeccable.
The performance suffers a bit, though, from its attempt to assert itself as “serious art” through scenic symbols and metaphors. Scene changes are accompanied by giant projected heart monitors with requisite shrill beeping, sounds of the underground, and voice-overs of bedtime stories which are distracting and of an entirely different theatrical genre than the action of the play. The otherwise sharply designed set is made trite by a series of large exit signs hung above the wings, so that no one can forget that escape is a major theme. What is charming and compelling in the play is the vital and dead-on representation of a specific class of individuals. This does not bear much abstraction; it is not a concept play.
The show ends, though, with what might be construed as a self-conscious nod to its sitcom status — Kitty, her husband Johnny, and the repentant asshole best friend who’s been kicked out by his formerly shallow-seeming wife, settle down to watch Will and Grace (a concession to Kitty, and perhaps a guilty pleasure). The theme music comes up, and the lights go down. When the lights come up again for the curtain call, the oh-so-appropriate soundtrack is still playing.