It’s 1975 in sunny Garden Grove, California, and Walter Wells is one of The Happy Ones.  With his own business, a home in the suburbs, and a wife and two young children, things couldn’t be better for Walter, a man living the quintessential American Dream.  “Beautiful women. Beautiful children.  Great neighbors.  Fantastic jobs.  Gorgeous weather.” Walter and his fellow Garden Grovians could hardly imagine a world any different from the one in which they live such perfect lives.

Bao Ngo isn’t one of the The Happy Ones. A doctor in his own country, Vietnam, Bao has arrived in Garden Grove with hardly more than the shirt on his back. Reduced to doing menial labor, the former physician has lost not only the professional status he enjoyed in Vietnam. His parents are dead, victims of American bombs.  So are his wife and children, killed by an exploding landmine.

Then comes the fateful day when Walter’s and Bao’s lives intersect, the day when Bao drives his car the wrong way onto a freeway exit and plows headlong into another vehicle.  Bao survives. Walter’s wife and children do not.

Thus begins Julie Marie Myatt’s extraordinary new comedy-tearjerker, The Happy Ones, now getting its world premiere in a superbly acted production at South Coast Repertory, another feather in director Martin Benson’s very feathered cap.

We never actually see Walter’s wife and kids, though we hear their voices in the first scene, as wife Margaret calls out to Walter from the bedroom where she’s changing and children Danny and Lisa swim playfully in the family pool.  Throughout the play, though, their faces smile out at us from the family portrait which remains hanging over the fireplace, their beaming faces continuing to remind us (and Walter) of the gravity of his loss.

It’s not until a few scenes into the play that tragedy strikes, though.  Following that first glimpse of Walter’s life “before,” we meet his best friend Gary, minister at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Of Garden Grove, who’s just preached on “Moderation” all the while nursing a hangover from he night before. We also hear about Mary Ellen, a new arrival in the neighborhood who, according to Gary, “likes to have a good time.” Thinking about the life they’re living, Walter exclaims to his friend, “We’ve got it made.  Praise California!”

Then comes the phone call to Walter’s appliance store that changes everything, and the next thing we see is Walter at the foot of the hospital bed of the man responsible for the death of his family.  “The sign said it was the wrong way! Can’t you read!” screams Walter, upon which the man in the bed begins to rip out the tubes which attach him to various drips and machines, crying out in a voice of pure agony, “I’ve had enough! Let me die!” In a situation like this, what’s a man like Walter to do but try to stop Bao from ending his life?

You might think that a play with subject matter as grim as The Happy Ones’ would end up a major downer, but the amazing truth is that Myatt’s play provokes far more laughter than tears. The laughter in The Happy Ones comes in part from the very absurdity of the situation Walter finds himself in soon after his first meeting with Bao.  Friends assume there must be a new woman in his life; otherwise how could his home be as spic-n-span as it is? How else could there be fresh flowers every day?  How else could Walter be eating so well?  The last thing that anyone could possibly imagine is the truth, that Bao has become Walter’s “invisible” unpaid housekeeper (the only thing he can do as he waits for his own death to send him to certain hell), the two men finding that it is only in each other’s presence that they can feel any measure of peace.  Neither asks of the other anything but silent companionship, a relief for Walter from the interference of well-meaning friends who know no better than to treat Walter “like I’m their pet that needs to be watched and cared for.” 

What makes The Happy Ones such a powerful and original piece of theater is the way that it goes beyond being a generic “Recovering From Tragedy” dramedy to a tragic-comedy with much to say about the world we lived in in 1975, and about a world that hasn’t changed all that much in the 34 years since then.  When Walter wonders what kind of God would rob him of his wife and children, Gary responds, “The same God that drops bombs on his (Bao’s) people.” Emotional isolationist Walter maintains that “that man’s people have nothing to do with me,” yet the fate of Bao’s own parents, wife, and children has a great deal to do with Walter, simply because of the country he was born in.  Walter’s innate optimism is as much a part of his “American spirit” as Bao’s stoic pessimism is a result of the world in which he was raised. “Not everything gets better,” Bao tells Walter.  “It gets worse,” something which the American, being American, cannot bring himself to believe.

Raphael Sbarge (Walter) and Greg Watanabe (Bao) could simply not be better in the very different roles they bring to life here. Take Sbarge from the South Coast Rep stage and plunk him down in a Garden Grove home and he’d blend in perfectly with his All-American-Guy neighbors.  As for Watanabe, with his subtle but spot-on Vietnamese accent and Asian body language, the American actor could blend in just as easily in Garden Grove’s Little Saigon.  Sbarge and Watanabe are so utterly real that they make the absurdity of Walter and Bao’s situation entirely believable.  Never do we doubt that in tragedy’s aftermath, each is the best possible thing that could have happened to the other.

A lot of The Happy Ones’ zesty humor comes from its two supporting players:  Gary, the self-professed worst preacher ever, and Mary Ellen, the vivacious divorcée with a serious lack of a social filter. “I like to have fun!” exclaims a tipsy Mary Ellen to the grieving widower, “so shoot me!  You only live once!”  Ouch! Then there’s Gary’s constant battle with hangovers in general and the remnants of one particularly nasty egg salad dip still in his tummy in particular.

Gary and Mary Ellen are brought to vivid life by Goeffrey Lower and Nike Doukas in two of the most vibrant performances you’re likely to see this fall.  Not having seen Lower before, it’s hard to imagine him as anyone other than crazy Gary, he’s that convincing.  Having seen the divine Doukas many times, I can only gasp in astonishment in the way the actress disappears into Mary Ellen’s bold and brassy but tender-hearted skin.  Doukas has never been better, and that’s saying a lot.

Myatt’s script is at once 70s/Orange County specific (references to avocado refrigerators and Melodyland Theatre) and universal in its humanity. I’d enjoy reading The Happy Ones simply to savor its language. Hearing the playwright’s words spoken from the mouths of South Coast Rep’s terrific cast is even better.  My only complaint with the script is that Myatt has Bao speaking a grammatically close-to-perfect English, something which as a lifelong ESL instructor I know to be rather unlikely.

As always, South Coast Rep has brought together a superb design team for The Happy Ones, beginning with set designer Ralph Funicello’s suburban living room, backed by a panoramic blue sky dotted with puffy white clouds. Angela Balough Calin’s polyester costumes, Tom Ruzika’s sunny lighting, and Paul James Prendergast’s sound design and original background score are, in a word, terrific.  Serving for the first time as associate director in a South Coast Rep production is the Chance Theater’s award-winning Artistic Director Oanh Nguyen.

“Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion,” says a character in Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias. Nowhere is this statement truer than in The Happy Ones, a play to cherish and a production to share with friends and loved ones.

South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

–Steven Stanley
October 4, 2009
                                                                   Photos: Henry DiRocco/SCR

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