There’s good news for hopeless romantics, those of us who truly believe in the redemptive power of love. Keith Huff’s Pursued By Happiness can now be added to the list of terrific plays written about wounded souls who somehow manage to find salvation in each other.

Midwestern playwright Huff returns to North Hollywood’s Road Theatre (where the West Coast Premiere of his The Bird And Mr. Banks won critical and audience raves) with his latest creation, a dark romantic comedy that might easily have been called Meet The Parents, had the hit film not gotten the trademark on that title first.

Then again, Pursued By Happiness’s scientifically-based title (it seems that because of something called neurogenesis, we’re not pursuing happiness so much as happiness is pursuing us) proves a perfect fit for this tale of two oddball biochemists in love—or at least on the way to love.

Frank Orlis (Mark St. Amant) and Julie Moore (Avery Clyde) meet cute at her presentation on “Horizontal Integration,” Frank being the only scientist to show up for Julie’s talk. Our first clue that Frank has a peculiar side to him comes with the revelation of his penchant for inventing acronyms, like taking the H.I. from Horizontal Integration and coming up with Hawaiian Intifada. Oddly charming as Frank may be, Julie is not particularly taken, and refuses to give her presentation for a single audience member. Frank insists on at least a Q&A, and borrows Julie’s computer in order to treat her to an iTunes chanson, the screens which previously held information on Julie’s presentation now filled with ever-changing rainbow-colored patterns, which according to Frank will never repeat, making this “the only time this particular event will be witnessed by the human eye.” Julie is still not impressed.

Cut to not long after in the cafeteria of Eli Lilly & Company, where both Frank and Julie work and where Frank is busy playing a video game. “Do you Chuzzle?” he asks an unamused Julie, whose buttons he seems to have a knack for pushing. (“And don’t tell me to lighten up!” she seethes at one point.) Still Frank plows forward, explaining that he has two season tickets for Indiana Rep and inviting her to fill the heretofore empty second seat. The old folks who have seats beside his will assume that Julie is his girlfriend. “It’ll be delightful,” he promises her, and finally, resistance broken down by persistence, Julie accepts his invitation.

At dinner after the show, the 40something singles exchange secrets about the wickedest things they’ve ever done. Julie’s is having gotten a co-worker fired; Frank’s is a tad more serious. “I killed a guy,” he confesses nonchalantly, then presents her with a Tiffany’s ring box, the better to propose on their first date. Yes, it may be soon, but Frank believes it’s the right time to tie the knot. And Julie accepts his proposal, “provisionally,” her two conditions being that a) they have sex and b) they meet each other’s parents, and though Frank’s kneejerk reaction to the second provision is an unconditional “Absolutely not!”, the couple are soon off to do just that.

To reveal much more about what transpires would be to spoil Pursued By Happiness’s many surprises, a number of which are likely to prove shockers. Suffice it to say that Frank and Julie’s first visit is to the home of his outwardly blissful upper-middle class parents where all is not as it seems, followed by an even more disturbing visit to the cluttered, rundown residence of Julie’s slovenly mom and dad, where even deeper, darker secrets are revealed.

As he proved in The Bird And Mr. Banks, playwright Huff is a master at combining the quirky, the creepy, the charming, and the utterly romantic into one ultimately irresistible soufflé. Though Frank and Julie’s rightness for each other seems initially to be merely their shared nerdiness, the pair of secrets they harbor make them a strangely perfect match, as if the awfulness of their pasts will somehow cancel each other out if only they can find the road to the happy ending that seems their due … and not screw up on the way.

Huff’s decision to entrust The Road with his latest play proves a savvy one, from Robin Larsen’s pitch-perfect direction to the sextet of superb performances delivered by its quartet of actors.

St. Amant (who directed The Bird And Mr. Banks at The Road in addition to his memorable performances in And Neither Have I Wings To Fly and American Dead) vanishes into Frank’s weirdo science nerd skin with an endearing performance that gets us on his side from his very first mouth-full-of-donut lines. The same can be said for Clyde, scarcely recognizable under horn-rimmed glasses as the actress who two years back played superficial rich girl Kimber in Stick Fly’s multi-award-winning ensemble. Clyde holds so much inside that when she finally breaks down, the effect is quite simply devastating. Pursued By Happiness’s two sets of parents are brought to vivid life by a single pair of actors, Tom Knickerbocker and Elizabeth Herron, both phenomenal and so absolutely distinctive in their dual roles that some audience members may swear they are seeing four actors instead of two.

Speaking of phenomenal, you won’t see a more thrillingly conceived multi-location set design than the one created by Craig Siebels for Pursued By Happiness. Like the Garland Award-winning one he created for Tryst, Siebels’ latest set design morphs in steadily more dazzling ways, from sterile conference room to equally sterile cafeteria to rain forest-themed restaurant to neat-and-tidy upscale living room to cluttered wreck of a Midwest home to the front seat of Julie’s car as she and Frank drive back home through a snowy night. Siebels’ scenic design is complimented by Adam Flemming’s ingenious projection design, beautifully lit by lighting designer Jeremy Pivnick, and punctuated by David B. Marling’s impressive sound design. (I loved the jungle sounds that provide a backdrop for the restaurant scene.) Jocelyn Hublau’s costume designs aid immensely in defining the characters who wear them. Kudos go too to prop designer Ashley Slater and dialect coach Linda de Vries.

Taylor Gilbert and Sam Anderson are executive producers and Michael McKiddy is producer. Darryl Johnson is assistant director, Jessica Rotter 2nd assistant director, and Justin Lieb assistant set designer. Maurie Gonzalez is stage manager.

Though Pursued By Happiness may not turn out quite the way you might expect, romantics need not fear leaving the theater brokenhearted. Keith Huff’s romantic dramedy is the perfect date play for couples who don’t mind a trip to the dark, darker, darkest side mixed in with the requisite laughter and tears of joy. For that matter, it might just give singles new reason to hope that Mr. or Ms. Right may just be out there, if only we can get over each other’s baggage.

The Road Theatre, 5108 Lankershim Bl., North Hollywood.
–Steven Stanley
March 25, 2011
Photos: Deverill Weekes

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