5/30: A Happy Little Occasion at NJ Rep

Happy8Is everybody HAPPY?  Michael Irvin Pollard and Susan Maris have some agonizing reappraisals as after-dinner mints, in Robert Caisley’s drama going up at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. 
(photo by SuzAnne Barabas)

It’s been an effective device of stage drama since long before Banquo busted up Macbeth’s banquet: The Dinner Party — where guests get oiled, skeletons get rattled, toasts get testy and the plot gets thickened as lumpy gravy. 

An invitation to dinner — with all the dramatic dyspepsia that entails — is at the heart of Happy, the new ensemble piece that makes its regional debut this week at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. In it, a well adjusted middle aged guy named Alfred and his wife Melinda are asked to break bread at the home of Alfred’s friend Eduardo — with the intent of meeting Eduardo’s new girlfriend, Eva, a “sexy 22 year old artist with a dark soul,” and an outlook that catalyzes the party into an affair where “truths get twisted, secrets get revealed,” and the whole soiree “becomes an evening that spins wildly out of control.”

Happy is being presented as a so-called “rolling” world premiere — a play that presents a series of separate “premiere” stagings in different cities, with different casts and directors — by the National New Play Network. Playwright Robert Caisley has been traveling the country, looking in on the previous productions in Montana, Florida and California — and the Idaho-based academic landed recently in downtown Long Branch, where director and NJ Rep co-founder SuzAnne Barabas has assembled a cast that he praises as top-notch.

The central character of Alfred is played here by an actor who’s a member of the NJ Rep stock company if ever there was one: the ever-versatile Michael Irvin Pollard, whose previous co-star turns have included roles as slightly surreal desk jockeys in Big Boys and Ten Percent of Molly Snyder; a wayward hubby in Apple; a couple of tactiturn strangers with dark secrets in Dead Ringer and Yankee Tavern; a suit ‘n tie patsy in Night Train, and a convicted pedophile in Release Point. He’s joined by Mark Light-Orr as Eduardo, Susan Maris as Eva and Wendy Peace as Melinda.

Will NJ Rep have another winner on its hands? Will Alfred forget Eva and find true happiness? And what about Melinda?? For the answers, your upperWETside correspondent dispensed with the questions, and let Robert Caisley fill us in on the origins, and the real meaning of Happy. Read on…

(L-R): Mark Light-Orr, Michael Irvin Pollard, Wendy Peace and Susan Maris are coming to dinner in HAPPY, running through June at NJ Rep.  (photo by SuzAnne Barabas)

ROBERT CAISLEY: I teach a course in dramatic literature at the University of Idaho, exposing students to the canon of Western Lit. Every year I give an assignment on ‘tragic flaws’…and every year I wind up having to read fifty shoddily written undergraduate papers. The same names come up all the time — Hamlet, Oedipus, Othello — and the same tragic flaws, too; jealousy, revenge, bloodlust, hubris.

Those tragic flaws are always described as negative impulses or emotions — but what if a character’s tragic flaw is something that’s generally regarded as a positive? What if it’s the person’s own contentedness? Their own honesty?

It brought to mind a drinking game with a friend, in which we try to practice ‘radical honesty.’ We try to get around the fact that we tend to protect the people we love by lying to them. I got to thinking, what if a guy who was happy with his life, happy with his job, happy with his 14 year marriage to his wife — what if we got him in a room with an antagonist, with someone who posed a threat to that carefully maintained happiness?

In the play, Ava is actually the new girlfriend of Alfred’s best friend. Alfred and his wife are invited to meet her — it’s their first time out in a long time— and things spiral out of control.

Our lead actor, Michael Irvin Pollard, is just perfect casting for the character. This is, I think, the eighth production that he’s done at New Jersey Repertory, and by the time of our first rehearsal he already had a lot of the words down pat.

I appreciate being able to be there at the theater during the rehearsal process. It’s actually part of my deal with the National New Play Network; they offset the cost of bringing in the playwright, and I’ve been there for each production of the play — except for Miami, although I did see it there.

I think that for the actors, sometimes it initially unnerves them to have me there — they’re already used to having to please the director, but on the other hand they’ve got lots of questions, and I can help.

I’ve been tweaking it all along. Even today at rehearsal I made a few cuts; trying to trim it to fighting weight despite the fact that it’s been staged several times already. It can be such a great benefit, to sit down with them and help them have the best possible production.

Happy presents matinee and evening previews on May 30 and 31 (2pm and 8pm) and June 1 (3pm); opens June 1 at 8pm (sold out), presents a matinee performance on June 2, then continues until June 30 with performances Thursdays through Sundays. Ticket reservations, showtimes and additional information can be obtained here.