By Caridad Svich
The Triple Happiness
By Brooke Berman
Box office: 212-246-4422
Brooke Berman's The Triple Happiness
throws into doubt the very acts of theatre making and writing.
This new play's subject is fiction itself: how a writer is born,
and how stories get made. The protagonist at first seems to be
a young man named Mike on holiday break from Vassar College who
is intent on becoming a writer--a too-familiar convention involving
an insecure, sensitive young man returning to his emotionally
distant parents in anomie-riddled suburbia--but he turns out not
to be the play's center.
Directed by Michael John Garces, The
Triple Happiness begins with a mysterious short scene between
Mike (played with finesse by Keith Nobbs) and a slightly older
working-class man named Jamie (Jesse J. Perez in an all-too-short
role) on a train. The young man is "collecting stories," he says.
He "collects other people's stories" because he does not have
his own. He is aware enough of his own dilemma to voice it and
act as witness to and investigator of the lives that surround
him. He is the empty boy waiting to be filled by other people's
dreams and visions.
It's not clear whether Mike has any talent
for writing, although he expresses a strong desire to write, or
to imagine himself at least as potentially a "great American writer."
His parents certainly don't think him exceptional. He's not "Holden
Caulfield," his father says, and thus the play begins to turn
on how people wish to see themselves in fictional characters,
even model their daily lives on fictional ones. This notion is
further enhanced by the arrival of a famous movie star on the
skids--named Tessa and played with dry wit by the production's
marquee star Ally Sheedy--who rather unexpectedly and abruptly
decides to stay at the young man's house for the holidays. She
was invited by his father Stan (played with economy and lightness
by veteran stage actor Mark Blum), whom she met casually at a
party. She is the movie star they both lust after on the screen,
who arrives to ignite their lives with her celluloid glamour.
Tessa is the play's catalyst, a sexual animal who detonates everyone's
libidos and, in Orton-ian fashion, wreaks serious havoc before
making her exit and satisfying her own curious, unexplained desires.
Mike and Stan are in Tessa's teasing thrall,
as is also the young man's mother Liz (played with charming distractedness
by Betsy Aidem). But another young woman symbolically named Hope
(played with brilliant grace by Marin Ireland) is waiting on the
sidelines. She has a decidedly unhealthy crush on Mike, and recounts
her longings in direct address, writing all the while in a journal.
She witnesses the increasingly disruptive negotiations between
Tessa and the young man's family with mischief and peculiar fondness.
She too is an aspiring writer, we come to find out, and she is
living through her stories until she decides that she also wants
to enter someone else's story. Late in Act One, she makes the
bold move to act upon her sexual craving, and she shows up at
Mike's house unannounced. Fiction is set to meet reality. Or is
Berman has constructed the play as a sequence
of short scenes that center on either emotional or physical impotence,
or on psychological longing. Stan and Liz engage in brief, elliptical
exchanges that illustrate their incompetence as partners and their
desire to be freed from the Cheeveresque suburban ennui that wraps
them like a cocoon. Mike barely speaks to them and instead becomes
Tessa's object of cynical affection. She toys with him, turns
him on, and leaves him. Hope tries to win his attention but, being
non-mediatized and therefore commonplace, she can't compete with
the screen siren's allure. Hope doesn't have a public image onto
which Mike or Stan can project their fantasies. She is a marginal
figure. Her impact on Mike, even after confessing her love/lust
for him, is minimal. Yet Hope continues to write and soon it appears
that she may indeed be writing the entire play.
There is a strong but not overstressed
suggestion that the whole play may be Hope's fiction: a series
of scenes where she is playing out imagined scenarios involving
the young man she pines for and the movie star she admires, who
may or may not be her real mother. Berman establishes a clean,
almost sit-com surface against which more elusive, Pirandellian
games are played. Some viewers may be seduced by the familiar
lines of plot, presentation and subject matter--including an extensive,
amusing mocking commentary on 1980s pop music and New Wave--but
the play's real satisfaction is in the endgame machinations of
Berman's figures in a blitzed, lonely, drunken world.
Berman writes about writing, and about
the ease and comfort of lies: the ecstatic, orgasmic happiness
of making things up, the cost of creation be damned. She is giddy
on the brave-new-world sentiments her characters crave. And because
the play's surface is cut along recognizable American realistic-comic
lines, and staged and cast with high-profile performers, it's
indeed easy to believe it's just another slickly crafted, well-made
American coming-of-age story. There's more there, though.
In scene after scene the work moves in
unexpected directions, evading the realistic comic conventions
that seem to control the plot. The characters move in and out
of events grasping at cause-and-effect understandings, yet they
have no place to fulfill their needs. Berman sets her figures
up in one stylistic world but then refuses to follow out their
fates there, implying she doesn't want to write the play she started.
It's as if the action were set in the world of Marivaux and Corneille,
in its approach and manners, but nevertheless operates like an
environment of Vonnegut's. We seem to be witnessing the act of
writing itself rather than an investigation of it.
If The Triple Happiness were to
embrace fully its wickedly schizoid nature, it could be quite
a powerful play. Yet, neither the play's structure nor the production
rise to its ambitions, despite the laudable efforts of a very
talented artistic team. The work seems to defy itself, detonate
before us. The familiar lines deceive and disallow pleasure. The
characters' outsized dreams about perfect fictional fates don't
fit in the outwardly serene, troubled house. Their rampant desires
are constantly thwarted by plot moves that prevent full release
of their id-driven passions. Nevertheless, the play holds promise.
Berman's veiled critique of fiction is beguiling and provocative.
She has a sharp wit and a passionate heart. Her earlier play Smashing,
produced by the Play Company in New York last season, demonstrated
she is an astute chronicler of disaffection and youthful malaise.
It's audacious of her, then, to put on display her incredibly
conflicted feelings about writing, wondering whether it should
rule one's life, or whether by writing one avoids life.
At the end her characters stand in suspension.
The young woman who is becoming a writer and who has slowly become
the protagonist stands next to one of her fictional creations.
She is wary but optimistic as she takes his hand and prepares
to go on an adventure. "Choose fiction," she seems to be saying,
because it is in fiction that the future lies. The ambiguity and
wistfulness of the play's ending, however hopefully destined,
point toward a larger societal condition, where individuals retreat
into fiction, fantasy and games rather than confront the hunger,
pain, and splendor of daily life.