Quentin Mare, Mary Bacon, Brian Keane, Kelly AuCoin,
and Kate Arrington in Happy Now?
(© James Leynse)
Quentin Mare, Mary Bacon, Brian Keane, Kelly AuCoin,
and Kate Arrington in Happy Now?
(© James Leynse)
Lucinda Coxon delivers an uncompromisingly bitter portrait of two unhappy marriages in Happy Now?, now being presented by Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters. While the production is filled with outstanding performances, it is directed with a heavy hand by Liz Diamond, and the work ultimately proves to be too unpleasant to be deemed enjoyable or truly satisfying.

Businesswoman Kitty (Mary Bacon) certainly has reason to feel out of sorts with her marriage. She's the primary breadwinner after her husband Johnny (Kelly AuCoin) quit his job at a law firm to become a teacher. Unfortunately, he's as workaholic in his new career as he was in his old one. Making matters worse, he turns into a sort of middle-aged frat boy whenever he's around Miles (Quentin Mare), an ex-colleague with a severe drinking problem and an acid tongue. On top of dealing with her difficulties at home and the office, Kitty has to cope with her estranged father's critical illness and the long-festering questions that she has about his abandonment of her mother (Joan MacIntosh) some 20 years ago.

As Kitty tries to maneuver through her maze of problems, Miles' marriage to Bea (Kate Arrington) falls apart and he ends up moving in with Kitty and Johnny. At least Kitty can confide in best friend Carl (Brian Keane), who seemingly has found love with a guy who is nearly half his age.

Kitty's ability to be open with Carl and his willingness to listen underscores one of the most underwhelming aspects of Coxon's script, which seems intent on simply reiterating the maxim that "Men are from Mars and women are from Venus." Neither Johnny nor Miles can understand, for instance, their wives' enjoyment of Will and Grace reruns. Miles, in particular, makes no small secret of the disdain he feels for the time Bea has devoted to choosing a shade of off-white for their living room. And, there even comes a moment when Carl finds himself in the doghouse with Kitty when he's joking around (in a very un-P.C. fashion) with the boys.

Thankfully, alongside the unpleasantness in these couples' homes (indicated with unattractive economy by scenic designer Narelle Sissons), there are some diversions that at least mitigate some of the unhappiness. Kitty's mom is only seen in two dream sequences (indicated with only limited success by projection designer Jeff Sugg), and MacIntosh proves to be both highly amusing and vaguely scary as this self-obsessed woman as filtered through her daughter's unconscious. Similarly, Kitty's encounters with Michael (the charismatic C.J. Wilson), a scruffy womanizer who puts the moves on her during the play's opening moments, are a delight.

Equally enjoyable -- although in a guilty sort of way -- are Miles' barbs, and it's a tribute to both Coxon's writing and Mare's performance that theatergoers find themselves smiling in spite of themselves at them. AuCoin imbues Johnny with a natural exuberance that makes even some of the character's worst slips somehow vaguely endearing, while Arrington beautifully captures the emotional hollowness that Bea has after living with years of Miles' verbal abuse.

At the play's center is Bacon's performance as Kitty, which is admirable for its fearlessness. She's willing to explore Kitty's unattractive qualities, but in doing so, she is often overly strident -- which only adds in making Happy Now? a wearisome theatrical experience.