Review: HAPPY FACE SAD FACE Makes Clever and Thought-Provoking Premiere at Elephant Stages' Lillian Theatre
HAPPY FACE SAD FACE
A World Premiere Drama and Comedy
Written by R.J. Colleary
Directed by Kathleen Rubin
Produced by Russell Boast
Life -- is it a comedy or a drama? The answer is "Yes!" in HAPPY FACE SAD FACE. The brilliantly simple concept is played out in two acts with the first being a drama and the second a comedy. The hook is, they are the same story but told from polar opposite perspectives.
It's a rainy night. An upstairs bedroom lights up and we see a couple arguing. Then we see his parents struggling with a decision in the other bedroom. There's a knock on the front door... and all hell is about to break loose.
The married couple, Jason Parks (Tom Christensen) and his hot-headed Puerto Rican wife Emily (Krizia Bajos) argue about her desire to have a child and his lack of interest (as well as sperm) needed for the project. In the other bedroom, Jason's parents Tom and Sonya Parks (Thomas F. Evans and Perry Smith) are discussing how to ask their son for money to save them from going into foreclosure. No one is happy, especially when the front doorbell rings at around 11:30pm.
Jason, a life insurance agent, answers the front door and lets his client Malcolm Summerall (Rob Locke) in, much to Emily's chagrin at having to play the role of waitress this late at night. And when she returns from the kitchen, Malcolm is pointing a gun at her husband, causing Emily to drop the tea tray which in turn wakes up Jason's parents. Soon it becomes clear to all that Malcolm is there to commit suicide at 12:01am, exactly when his 2-year life insurance policy matures and his daughter Clementine (Sarah Agor) will inherit $1 million upon his death.
The doorbell rings and Officer Burris enters (Eddie Alfano) to check on the 911 call made from this location. Apparently Emily was doing more than just heating water in the kitchen. Upon inspecting the premises, Officer Burris concludes that everything is fine - until Clementine rushes in, begging her father not to kill himself. Malcolm draws his gun and the cop realizes the emergency situation is out of his control and takes a seat on the couch with everyone else being held at gunpoint.
But Tom checks the life insurance policy and notices the Double Indemnity clause - if Malcolm dies accidentally before 12:01am, his daughter will inherit $2 million. And since everyone needs money for their own reasons, Malcolm offers to give $500,000 to the person who comes up with the best way to kill him in the next 20 minutes, making it look like an accident.
The twists and turns in the story involving what the characters have done in the past to get them to this point in time and their plans for Malcolm's demise so they can get a cut of the money, will keep you on the edge of your seat. And I can tell you there was a loud collective gasp at the end of Act I when a character's true nature and intent was revealed. Kudos to R.J. Colleary for weaving the believable story to this unexpected ending.
Then the bar opened at intermission with classic comedy TV show themes playing and the mood changed, especially when the audience was welcomed back for Act II with a rousing rendition of "Comedy Tonight" which prepared us for the off-the-wall riotous characters we were going to meet, so totally different from their personalities in Act I.
Jason is now flamboyantly gay, Emily is an over-the-top Cuban who barely speaks English but uses her hands and arms to get her message across, Tom and Sonya are into BDSM complete with riding crop, latex, knee pads and slave collars, the cop is now a very bad cop who flirts and seduces the hot and willing Emily, and Clementine is into Goth rather than the clean-cut nurse she was in Act I. Malcolm's character and accent keeps changing so we never really know who he really is, from Brit to the Bronx to Frenchman and more. But it is very clear he still intends to do what he has to do to guarantee his daughter will be rich after his imminent death.
Needless to say, while the story is the same, the presentation and dialogue are now totally different and reminded me of the slapstick antics in the movie "Airplane." I especially liked the use of spotlights into which actors would step to deliver their character and plot-moving soliloquies, played for intentional laughs with the dialogue in rhyme a la Fezzik the Giant in "The Princess Bride."
And I must praise the show's technical merits, from the remarkable multi-level set designed by Keiko Moreno to its effective lighting by Matt Richter. You will really feel like you have stepped into a two-story middle-America home with bedrooms upstairs and the living room and kitchen downstairs. As the characters play out scenes in the different rooms, backlit scrims reveal the action in each room which disappears when the characters move to another space and the lighting shifts. Your attention is caught and focused where needed as the main action shifts from room to room with the rest of the set in darkness and the other characters immobile. This was the best small theater set I have seen in a long time and it is worthy of being called another character in this clever and thought-provoking show.