Richard Dresser respects the power of good writing. He establishes this in the opening scenes of The Pursuit of Happiness, premiering through February 4 at the same Laguna Playhouse that commissioned it.
The play begins with three soliloquies by lay writers: Annie (DeeDee Rescher) is writing a boastful year-end missive to her Christmas mailing list, her daughter Jody (Joanna Strapp) is editing her college application essay, and her husband Neil (Matthew Reidy) is practicing a speech he’s written for work. In the act of communicating their positions, each reveals something about both their characters and their author’s skill.
Similarly, while Dresser infuses his work with the trappings of social relevance, he quickly reveals that, true to its billing, this play is designed for those in search of a good time. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. A show can sacrifice significance for comedy, if the comedy works. In Artistic Director Andrew Barnicle's excellent staging, it works well enough to redeem him for last year’s excruciating And the Winner Is.
In this Pursuit of Happiness, the fuzziest of the inalienable rights offered “in writing” to declare independence in 1776, Dresser looks at adulthood from the standpoint of someone about to enter it and several forced to re-evaluate it, but don't expect too much depth here. The vessel has definitely been streamlined for laughs. Anything too taxing was tossed out with the tea.
Points about materialism, dead-end jobs, parents molding children as themselves, mid-life alienation, and kids who are wiser than their folks are here, but just to frame the fun. The final twist-tie used to hurriedly bag the plot points? A little too convenient.
Still, larger themes of lost ideals can occasionally be glimpsed beneath the sketch-comedy like a playful leviathan shadowing a ship. We are reminded that when Annie and Neil were of college age, children were suddenly adamantine in declaring independence from their parents.
Forty years ago, post-war affluence had created the first youth market, drugs had hit the middle class, and televisions had carried images of it all into most living rooms. This fueled a sense of unity and entitlement that forged the youth secession of the late ‘60s. That may have been temporarily lost on Annie and Neil, but it will still resonate for many in the audience, especially those who brought their own reference points with them.