BWW Review: Coachella Valley Repertory's HAPPY HOUR is Outstanding in Every Way, and Another Must-See
George Eastman is not a well-known playwright - yet. His dramedy, HAPPY HOUR, currently in its world premiere run at Coachella Valley Repertory (CVRep) in Rancho Mirage, is likely to change his status. Director Ron Celona, veteran actor Gavin MacLeod, and Los Angeles-based actor John Hawkinson do justice to Mr. Eastman's sensitive and intelligent play. The result is another must-see production at CVRep.
HAPPY HOUR, previous versions of which CVRep presented in staged readings, tells the story of 84-year-old Harry Townsend (Mr. MacLeod), who lives alone in Vermont in the house that he and his late wife built twenty-five years before. His forty-something daughter lives next door and lays out his pills, cooks his food (she lets him only eat soup and soft foods because of his swallowing problems), and picks him up when he falls, which happens frequently. When his daughter goes to New York for the weekend, her twin brother, Alan (Mr. Hawkinson), flies in from California to elder-sit. Alan promises his sister to have "the talk" aimed at convincing his stubborn father, who is beginning to lose his memory, to trade his cane for a walker, and to buy a condo in the new senior living center.
HAPPY HOUR is both touching and hilariously funny. Despite his failing memory, Harry is still a witty man. When Alan comments that one of the cabinets is full of Tupperware tops, Harry answers, "They reproduce when you're not looking." Harry laments the loss of his potency, complaining, "The only thing I can get up now is phlegm." He believes that he failed Alan by never telling him the facts of life, and decides to remedy that omission. In the process, he thoroughly embarrasses his son by revealing all the places he and his late wife had sex, including the boat dock in back of the house. Harry's speech does answer one of Alan's lingering questions: The purpose of carpeting the boat dock was to prevent splinters during amorous encounters.
Harry fears that he has become irrelevant in the world. Despite his years of work on the neighborhood association's board, no one on the current board asks for his advice, or lets him attend closed meetings. He is not only is concerned that he will lose happy memories if he sells the house, but he worries that, if he were to move into a senior living center, he will have nothing to do except wait to die.
Both the actors - especially Mr. MacLeod - expertly employ facial expressions and body language to convey their characters' feelings. They so perfectly demonstrate what is going through their characters' minds that it is as if Mr. MacLeod, Mr. Hawkinson, and Mr. Celona have stepped into the characters' shoes. Harry Townsend is a highly effusive man, but Alan starts off stiff and reserved, and admits he is uncomfortable with his mission. However, Alan learns to speak in language that Harry understands, including body language. As Alan hugs his father and tells him that he wants Harry to be safe so the children can have many more happy years with him, I not only understood Alan's feelings, but felt them along with him.
HAPPY HOUR has an upbeat ending, but it is still very sentimental. Be prepared with tissues; a man sitting near me had tears in his eyes. Mine were running down my face. The play contains so many displays of raw emotion that, with a lesser cast or a lesser director, it could easily become maudlin. Both actors, however, appear to be comfortable conveying heartfelt emotions of parental and filial love on stage. They and Mr. Celona are able to carry the audience along on the ride, without causing people to feel as if they are voyeurs. Mr. Eastman, too, knows how to keep the pathos from overwhelming the audience; whenever things get too heavy, he has Harry burst forth with one of his wisecracks to lighten the mood.
I heard audience members comment on the beauty of Jimmy Cuomo's brilliant set. It contains incredible detail, including rustic furniture, a wood-burning stove, pots crammed into the island cabinet, dish soap and paper towels next to the sink, and outdoor magazines on the coffee table. It is so easy to picture the set as Harry's home that the audience understands immediately why he can't bear to leave it behind.
Eddie Cancel's lighting, too, contributes to the story. I noticed that, when Alan is especially embarrassed by his father's tales, he appears to be blushing, because he is sitting in an area with reddish lighting. If this is intentional, it is a clever addition.
I spoke to Mr. Eastman before the performance, who gives Mr. Celona a great deal of credit for helping him to revise the play by causing him to dig more deeply into the characters' personalities and motivations - especially the son's reserve. He said that Mr. Celona "pull[ed] it out of" him, by asking questions that led Mr. Eastman to solve script problems. Mr. Eastman said of Mr. Celona, "I call him my tailor," because he ensures the presence of finishing details, much as a tailor would ensure that a suit contains the proper buttons. Mr. Eastman calls Mr. Celona "awesome."
I strongly recommend this high-quality production, although I suspect that anyone who misses it will have the opportunity to see HAPPY HOUR elsewhere. Mr. Eastman's creation is one that I believe could find a home on Broadway. If it does, I hope that Mr. MacLeod and Mr. Hawkinson go with it - their intelligent and sensitive interpretations help weave the story's intricate tapestry.
The rest of the crew consists of Louise Ross (stage manager); Jimmy Cuomo (set design, construction, and props); Aalsa Lee (costume design); Eddie Cancel (technical direction, lighting design, and http://www.CVRep.org lighting technician); Randy Hansen (sound design); Doug Morris (design associate, construction and props); Karen Goodwin (sound technician); and Lynda Shaeps (make-up).
For previous Broadway World stories about HAPPY HOUR and its evolution from script to play, see /los-angeles/article/BWW-Interviews-Staged-Reading-of-HAPPY-HOUR-at-CVRep-Moves-George-Eastmans-Script-Closer-to-Production-20141215 and /los-angeles/article/BWW-Preview-Coachella-Valley-Repertory-Premieres-a-New-Serio-Comedy-Starring-Gavin-MacLeod-20151023 .
HAPPY HOUR will run through Sunday, November 22, 2015, with performances Wednesday through Saturday evenings, and Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Evening shows start at 7:30pm. Matinees start at 2:00pm.
CVRep is located in The Atrium, at 69-930 Highway 111, Suite 116, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $48 each. See the web site, www.CVRep.org, for more information, or call the box office at 760-296-2966.
All four CVRep productions for 2015-16 contain the underlying theme of Identity: Lost and Found. The other three productions are:
A CLASS ACT, Music & Lyrics by Edward Kleban, Book by Linda Kline and Lonny Price (January 20 - February 14, 2016). This biographical musical about Ed Kleban, the Tony award-winning lyricist for A CHORUS LINE, dramatizes Ed's often hilarious, ultimately heartbreaking journey. Ed's goal was to write both the words and music for a Broadway show, but only after his death of cancer at the age of 48 did his dream come true.
I AM MY OWN WIFE, by Doug Wright (March 9 - March 27, 2016). Before there was Hedwig, there was Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, with whom the playwright conducted interviews over several years. The play tells the fascinating tale of the real-life German transgendered woman who managed to survive both the Nazi onslaught and the repressive East German Communist regime, but often resorted to nefarious means to do so.
4000 MILES, by Amy Herzog (April 20 - May 8, 2016). After suffering a major loss on a cross-country bike trip, 21-year-old Leo moves in with his feisty 91-year-old grandmother. Over the course of a month, these unlikely roommates infuriate, bewilder, and ultimately touch each other's souls.
Subscriptions for three and four plays for the 2015-2016 season are on sale. Individual tickets are $43 per person for previews (the first Wednesday and Thursday nights of each run), $58 for the first Friday night of each run (when there is a reception after the show), and $48 for other performances. See the web site, www.CVRep.org, for more information, or call the box office at 760-296-2966. For group sales, please contact Shari Lipman, box office manager at 760-296-2966, extension 101. Box office hours are Mon-Fri 10:30-2:30, and and 2-hours prior to each performance.
Photo Credit: Sal Mistretta