After seeing a new play, I like to give myself a little time to digest the piece. I do not like knee-jerk reactions. They are usually shallow and oversimplified. Instead, I like to give myself a little time to let the play work on me. I go about doing other things (yard work, painting, hanging out with the family, etc) while in the background my brain processes and finds meaning. Usually, I uncover a richness in the play that I did not see right away. Sometimes the flaws of the play become more visible. Either way, I know I can expect, after time, for the play to start to make some sort of sense to me. I start to “get it.”
Well, it has been almost 36 hours since I have seen Happily After Ever, Bloomington Playwrights Project’s newest production, and I find myself no closer to “getting it” than when the house lights went up after the show. This is not to say it is incomprehensible. In fact, I understand what the play attempts to do from a theater critic mindset. I also found some of the depictions to be not only stimulating but also relevant. Yet, I think I am getting ahead of myself. It’s easy to do with a play as confusing as this one.
To oversimplify the plot, Happily After Ever is about a couple that wants to have the perfect life and relationship, but when their child is born with indeterminate sex organs, their perfect little life is thrown in turmoil. Described this way (which is not much different than the blurb on the BBP’s site), the play sounds like a realistic narrative of a family’s struggle with gender issues that leads to a “hilarious battle of the sexes.” (BPP site)
However, this play is not realism; it is surrealism covered in a thick layer of sarcasm and a dollop of dark humor on top. The play draws attention to the inherent problems of the perfect middle-class life to which so many of us aspire. The professions of love between the couple are hollow. They love to reassure themselves of how great their relationship by having their dysfunctional neighbors over for dinner and charades. There is a game show dream sequence, a talking dog, and generic professions of love passed off as the real thing. All of this sounds really appetizing. I love surrealism, sarcasm, and dark humor. It should work right? Right?
Well, it doesn’t, and I’m trying to figure out why.
I don’t think it has anything to do with the BPP’s production. They did a stellar job creating a simple looking stage that has to accommodate multiple venues from bus stop to game show set. The acting, or purposeful overacting, was actually very good. Each and every person on that stage committed to their role and the ridiculousness of the piece. I love that the BPP is not afraid to produce such an odd play.
The problem was not a lack of relatability because I absolutely related to the characters, mainly Janet played wonderfully by Courtney Reid Harris. Despite the surrealism of her character development and the piece generally, I understood so many of the anxieties and pressures she experienced during the course of the play. They are the same anxieties and pressures I have felt since having a child 18 years ago. Yes, my child did not have indeterminate sex organs, but, to me, that felt secondary to the actual anxiety fever dream that is consistent with being a mother of any child. Like Janet, sometimes you do feel like you are in an unwinnable game, sometimes in your darkest hours you just wish that baby would disappear, and sometimes…no, at all times…you feel like you are making so many mistakes that your child will only grow up to resent you. You constantly look around for reassurance. You ask anybody that will answer, “Am I doing the right thing?” All of these real moments of parenting I saw poignantly depicted in this surreal creation.
So what was it? Was it the disturbing, and seemingly unnecessary pantomimed bestiality scene? Possibly. I do know that I’m still trying to figure out its purpose. Yet one scene does not make or break a play.
Try as I might, I cannot put my finger on why this doesn’t work. Perhaps it is not the play. It could be me. Maybe my humor is not dark or irreverent enough. The perfect audience for this play would have a very specific kind of sense of humor, and I encourage those people to go see this Happily After Ever. But I think for the majority of audience members, this play can be more than a little disturbing, confusing, and (for me) frustrating.