“Cheery, upbeat, even festive” are hardly the words one would normally use to describe a funeral, but then again the recently deceased “Mother Hapshaw” was probably the last person to inspire tears and lamentations. In fact, “Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead” could easily be the theme song of Ernest Kearney’s black comedy Urned Happiness, now playing at North Hollywood’s T.U. Studios.

Adult sisters Maggie (Kal Bennett) and Kimmy (Julie Mann) and their respective spouses Randoph (Gary Rubenstein) and Lloyd (Joe Corgan) have assembled at Mother Hapshaw’s home following her cremation, the better to plan for a future without the woman who made their lives a living hell.

Still, with a battle-ax like Mother Hapshaw, there are plenty of bitter childhood memories to be rehashed. Take for example the sisters’ “Bet You Today” game, which had the two young girls coming up with new ways to complete the sentence: “Bet you today, Mother hates _____,” making for an endless stream of answers including hippies, yuppies, bald men, Ed Sullivan, people who take in stray cats, and Negroes, though not necessarily in that order. Never one to mince words, Mother Hapshaw was also wont to spit out invectives like, “Toys For Tots is a commie front!” and “Rosie O’Donnell is the antichrist!” As one of her in-laws declares, “She did to motherhood what Hitler did to Charlie Chaplin mustaches.”

Though probably not that far apart in age, Maggie and Kimmy couldn’t be more different as grown-up siblings. Maggie has created for herself a sophisticated, upper-crust persona, peppering her conversations with expressions like “I daresay,” “Why must you…?,” and “I deem myself…” in a North Atlantic accent possibly gleaned from watching 1930s/40s movie classics on TCM. Kimmy, on the other hand, is very much of the current century and not at all afraid to tell it like it is, or at least like it was living with her mother during the harridan’s final months. She’s still ticked off about Maggie’s decision to leave all the caretaking up to her, taking full advantage of a husband and three children as an excuse to foist Mother off on her hapless sibling Kimmy is even more unforgiving of Lloyd’s departure exactly nine months and three days ago, and while it’s true that he did return for the funeral, if Kimmy has her way, Lloyd will be hitting the road as soon as she can kick him out the door.

Over the course of Urned Happiness’s darkly funny (and for the most part involving) first act, a good deal is revealed about each of its four main characters. We learn that Kimmy used drink as a means of coping with the cantankerous old woman’s venom, while Lloyd got away as far as he could once he realized that his wife was unwilling to put Mom into a nursing home. Now, Kimmy blames Lloyd for leaving and he blames her for not giving him a chance to figure out a means of paying for Mother Hapshaw’s away-from-home care.

Maggie, on the other hand, used Randolph’s and her children as the perfect excuse to stay away far away from Mother’s side, and milquetoast Randy was hardly the sort of man to put up a fight with a wife who carries mace in her purse as a backup for her stun gun because “gone are the innocent days of brass knuckles

Act One unrolls as a series of mostly interesting two-person scenes—first between the two sisters, then between each married couple, and finally between the two sons-in-law, audience attention lagging only when the two men compare war stories, perhaps because unlike the other three duos, the husbands lack much of a shared history. It’s also around the time that Randolph and Lloyd start shooting the breeze that audience members may find themselves questioning what the point of all this is.

Fortunately, the arrival of The Unexpected Visitor (T.J. Marchbank) near the end of the first act perks things up considerably, and by the time Urned Happiness reaches final fadeout, it has “urned” its applause. Though uneven in tone, Kearney’s comedy mostly succeeds, first and foremost in generating laughs, but also in creating a set of complex, generally believable characters and in demonstrating that despite everything, we human beings have ways of surviving even the most toxic of pasts, and of even perhaps finding happiness despite them.

Though Urned Happiness bills itself as a “Grave New Comedy,” its roots go back at least fifteen years, a 1997 production meriting an LA Weekly Pick Of The Week. Not having seeing that incarnation, this reviewer cannot make comparisons, though it’s hard to imagine it having been performed by a better cast than the one currently onstage.

Lincoln plays Maggie just as Joan (Crawford or Fontaine, take your pick) would have in the ‘40s, mock-British accent and acquired sophistication, and it works, particularly in contrast to Mann’s very natural, very down-to-earth Kimmy. Mann digs deep to reveal a wounded victim of a hellish upbringing and a marriage gone bad, and her scenes opposite a very effective Corgan have the ring of truth amidst all the laughter. Rubenstein takes the stereotypical henpecked wimp (“Anchovies give him the vapors,” declares Maggie of Randolph) and gives the part three dimensions. Finally, in a role that won’t be described here so as not to give away the surprise, Marchbank delivers the evening’s most colorful, scene-stealingest performance—and makes The Unexpected Guest every bit as real as the (relatively) normal characters surrounding him.

Design-wise, Urned Happiness lacks the professional sheen that distinguishes the best of L.A. theater. No one receives credit for scenic design, lighting design, sound design, or costume design, though Kearney’s script does find a clever explanation for the bare walls of its simple but satisfactory living room set. Lighting is very basic, but the show’s costumes and music are well chosen. (Don Mitchell and Sound Circle share credit as music consultants.)

Fortunately, Urned Happiness isn’t a play that requires Class A design elements to “urn” its laughs, and in the hands of its first rate cast, it makes for an entertaining, well-acted ninety minutes acid-tinged fun.

T.U. Studios, 10943 Camarillo Street, North Hollywood.
–Steven Stanley
January 2, 2011

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