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 it?
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
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.