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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, March 25, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 12
Perfect casting elevates The Happy Ones
Arts & Entertainment
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Perfect casting elevates The Happy Ones

by Miryam Gordon - SGN A&E Writer

The Happy Ones
Seattle Public Theater
Through April 10


In 1975, California was in a time of political retrenchment as the Vietnam War was winding down, South Vietnam was capitulating to the North, and the U.S. was adjusting to the lack of trust in government that came out of the Watergate scandal. It was also a time of middle-class growth when the American dream seemed most attainable.

This is the time period Julie Marie Myatt set her play The Happy Ones, now presented at Seattle Public Theater.

Walter's life is perfect, by his own standards. He has the lovely home, the perfect wife, one boy and one girl, and a thriving appliance business. He has a best friend, Gary, a Unitarian minister who's not terribly great at his job.

Suddenly, in a tragic car accident, he loses his perfect family, and has to cope with one of the greatest tragedies of anyone's life. Gary, the feel-good minister, is outdone by the scope of Walter's despair, even when helped by a new love interest, Mary-Ellen.

The accident is caused by a new Vietnamese immigrant, Bao, who drove the wrong way on the highway, but survived the accident. Walter goes to the hospital to express his rage at Bao and finds Bao despondent enough to want to die. When Bao is recovered, he visits Walter's store to try to offer some amends, thereby initiating a strange, redemptive relationship.

The script has many strong areas, including a large chunk of comic relief, primarily in Mary-Ellen's refreshing presence. Mary-Ellen, played to the hilt by Macall Gordon, is many hyphenates: balls-to-the-walls, down-to-earth, plain-spoken, unselfconscious, pushy. She unintentionally gives Walter an example of what living might look like after he recovers somewhat from the tragedy.

David Gassner directs a capable cast. They say that 80% of performance is in casting, and here the casting is perfect. K. Brian Neel fully inhabits the retro-role of Walter - his awkward geekiness, his love of family, and his experience as a shell-shocked survivor. Shawn Law as Gary brings out Gary's inability to manage his friend's pain, though his character grows through the experience.

An absolutely awesome job is done by David Hsieh as the distraught Vietnamese immigrant. Bao wants to die and finds that he can't. So he demands, pleads, begs, and wears Walter down until Walter accepts Bao's service in some way. The role brings a whole different culture into the '70s. Hsieh was understated, but centered, able to infuse that difference like a hint of perfume you've never smelled.

As strong as the production is, with excellent technical support from set designer Dan Schuy, lighting by Dani Prados, wonderful '70s music by sound designer David Hahn, and exquisite costuming job by Pete Rush (where did he find that effing fabulous sweater set?), the script has a bit of an unfinished feel. Near the beginning, when the tragedy unfolds, there is almost a glossing-over of the tragedy. It lets the audience stay at arm's length from feeling what Walter is feeling, right when we need to be pulled in the most. The ending is a bit unsatisfying, a bit too sitcom-ish. We're not really shown how these people's interior lives have fundamentally changed. It skims the surface a little too much. If there was an opportunity to tinker with the script a little more, this capable playwright could deepen the work and the whole experience.

For more information, go to www.seattlepublictheater.org or call 206-524-1300.

Discuss your views at sgncritic@gmail.com.

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