BWW Reviews: Haves and Have Nots Square off in Last Act's HAPPY COUPLE
No story is completely original. It's all been done before. Surely we've seen shows that involve a crumbling marriage or others that involve class struggle, but rarely are those themes seamlessly interwoven as they are in James Venhaus's daring play The Happy Couple, currently playing The White House Ranch in Austin thru May 25th. This remarkably bold production by Austin's Last Act Theater Company, while highly entertaining and at times laugh-out-loud funny, will leave you a bit uneasy, and that's precisely the point.
Venhaus's fast-paced work involves a wealthy married couple (Scot Friedman and Suzanne Balling) who visit their first home on the evening of their 10th anniversary. When they do, they discover that the home is now inhabited by a trio of squatters (Lindsay McKenna, Rob Novak, and Derek Vandi). Through their encounter with their old home and its new inhabitants, the happy couple of course realizes that their happiness may have run its course.
At the onset, it's tough to decide whether or not Venhaus intends to create a comedy or drama. Commentary on class distinction is peppered throughout, allowing one to consider the play a drama, but then there are as are some genuinely funny moments that veer the play into comedic territory (a line about how someone needs to invent "pot popcorn" to allow users to get stoned and cure their munchies at the same time is particularly memorable) followed by moments of intensity and violence that abruptly turn the show back into the dramatic realm. By the end, it's clear that Venhaus doesn't intent to create a drama or a comedy at all. He intends to create authentic, realistic characters. He wants us to consider that the best of us still have a dark side. The worst of us still have some vulnerability. Whether we're good or bad, most of us are discontented but refuse to make any choices to change our situation. The tiny silver lining to be found is that no matter how sorrowful our situation is, there's still something funny to be found, and Venhaus is able to show that complete picture in a way that never feels forced or muddled.
Needless to say, Venhaus's play is fairly complex, and the five person cast excels at dealing with Venhaus's challenging and nuanced text. Rob Novak plays it cool as Eddie, the musician among the squatters. Eddie is the only character who seems truly content with his lot in life, allowing Novak to set himself apart from the rest of the bunch. As Billy, the squatter whose moral compass is at odds with his occasional moments of explosive anger and violence, Derek Vandi effortlessly toys with us. He's tender and sweet but menacing and dangerous, constantly keeping us guessing as to what he'll do next. And as Michael, the stuffy and cowardly husband, Scot Friedman shines despite not having quite as much stage time as the rest. In his few moments in the show, Friedman creates a selfish character who equates money and professional success with happiness and fulfillment.
As strong as the men are, it's the two women who get the meat of the material to work with. Suzanne Balling shows tremendous range as Mary Elizabeth, the sweet and wholesome housewife who we quickly realize is fixated on her past and her unrealized dreams. Her performance is both hilarious and heartbreaking and is by far one of the strongest performances of the season. As her adversary, the mean-spirited squatter Angel, Lindsay McKenna is a force to be reckoned with. She's a despicable bully with no regard for the thoughts, feelings, or safety of others. Yet despite her toughness, we do see a couple brief glimpses of her vulnerability. It's clear that Angel is a wounded woman, but how she's become so calloused and evil is smartly left ambiguous by Venhaus. The fact that Angel feels entitled to money but has no desire to work for it makes her character even more interesting, especially as that's her hypocritical point of contention with housewife Mary Elizabeth. McKenna makes it clear that while Angel hates Mary Elizabeth's silver spoon syndrome, she also enviously yearns for it.
Angel seems to hate anyone who has anything that she desires. If Angel ever desired talent, she'd surely hate director Karen Alvarado. Anyone who saw Last Act's production of Doctor Faustus knows that Ms. Alvarado is a gifted actress, but she's an equally talented director as well. There's never a moment where you can see the hands of a director at work. Every moment and every character feels eerily accurate and real. Alvarado's decision to stage the play in an actual house-appropriately decorated with the squatter staples of beer, tattered found furniture, and doors made of discarded sheets-adds to the realism. Though I'm sure her direction, the fantastic cast, and Venhaus's insightful and well-developed text would succeed in a more traditional space, the choice of setting adds a bit of extra texture to the piece. The setting is dirty, raw, muggy, and intimate, thrusting the audience into this pressure cooker along with the characters.