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Theater Review: Richard Dresser’s The Pursuit of Happiness

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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.

Carrying the ball are Rescher and Strapp, who provide diametric balance to Dresser’s trans-generational turntable. Rescher is responsible for gaining most of the yardage and she keeps Annie amusing and winning. She gets superb support from Preston Maybank as a former college friend now in an important position – at least for the plot. Maybank brings pitch perfect honesty to this bad-hair cast-off from Annie’s past, earning his laughs and our empathy. This is one of Maybank’s best recent outings.

Tim Cummings registers well as Tucker, who serves as foil for both father and daughter. In Tucker, a co-worker of Neil’s who gets brought into the family on a daughter-recommended attempt to make a new friend, Dresser lowers the IQ to rev the slapstick. Cummings, taking more license than the others, nails his lines with a dead-on-arrival delivery reminiscent of Steven Wright. In the Tucker-Jody scenes, Cummings and especially Stapp get a chance to make their characters more than mere reactive set-ups for Annie and Neil.

Tom Buderwitz has a sturdy set that fills the proscenium with the drama’s principle residence. Pallets slide in and out stage left and right for additional scene locations. Julie Keen’s costumes are unobtrusive until she has fun with sad-sack Tucker’s choices. Lighting Designer Paulie Jenkins sets up a nice grid that lets everyone be nicely observed, and David Edwards provides his usual fine tuning.

From its Christmas letter opening to its My Back Pages curtain call, this is light entertainment that works, especially for the Boomers who remember when it was taken for granted that ideals would always be with us.

Ah, but we were so much older then.

CREDITS: by Richard Dresser, directed by Andrew Barnicle
Tom Buderwitz, set; Julie Keen, costumes, Paulie Jenkins, lights; David Edwards, sound; Nancy Staiger, stage manager. With Tim Cummings, Preston Maybank, Matthew Reidy, DeeDee Rescher and Joanna Strapp.

Commissioned by The Laguna Playhouse
World premiere: Laguna Playhouse, Laguna Beach, California; January 1-February 4, 2007

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