The term “high concept” is one more often applied to a Hollywood blockbuster than to a play getting its World Premiere in one of L.A.’s many 99-seat theaters. Studios seem far more resistant to films that can’t be pitched in a few succinct words than are our local stages—not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with “high concept,” a fact made abundantly clear by R.J. Colleary’s Happy Face Sad Face, now playing at Hollywood’s Lillian Theatre.

Colleary’s concept is a high one indeed—tell the same story in polar-opposite ways, first as Sad Face drama and then as Happy Face comedy (adjective inversion in the title be damned), and though there will surely be grouches with nits to pick about its execution, I had an equally rip-roaring time in Acts One and Two, though ultimately it’s the juxtaposition of two such different genres in a single play that makes Happy Face Sad Face work so well.

Both acts have the same basic storyline, or at least they do most of the way through, with the lack of money being the root of just about everyone’s evils.

398133_468674066524176_2080072699_n Jason (Tom Christensen) may be a hotshot young insurance agent, but he and wife Emily (Krizia Bajos) have been stuck in the same modest Ikea-furnished house all eight years of their married life, and Jason keeps postponing baby-making till they’ve accumulated a sufficient nest egg, though Emily suspects there may be other reasons.

Paying Jason and Emily an overnight visit tonight are Jason’s parents Tom and Sonya (Thomas F. Evans and Perry Smith) in hopes that their son will loan them enough money to pay off their mortgage debts, since it’s either that or lose the family home.

Then there’s Malcolm Summerall (Rob Locke), a money-strapped client of Jason’s with an English accent and serious health concerns, who plans to cash in on his life insurance policy at precisely 12:01 tonight with Jason as his witness, since that’s when his policy’s “No Suicide” clause expires. His aim: to provide his formerly estranged adult daughter Clementine (Sarah Agor) with a comfortable future after his death.

Last but not least there’s police officer Burris (Eddie Alfano), who owes a loan shark big, and needs moolah every bit as much as any of the above … and pronto.

3341.1515 Act One plays it daytime soap serious with film noir plot twists that come in such rapid-fire succession, you’ll might need a scorecard to figure out who’s really who and who’s scamming who and who’s going to point the gun at who next. In other words, it ain’t Arthur Miller, nor is it trying to be. Think The Young And The Restless crossed with The Postman Always Rings Twice and you’ll enjoy every overwrought moment, many of them underscored by a pitch black musical soundtrack to remind you that this stuff is for real.

312393_469548366436746_920938926_n Act Two takes the same basic characters, but tweaks them the better to fit its blend of slapstick and burlesque and Saturday Night Live. Cuban-born Emily, who occasionally cursed under her breath in Spanish in Act One, now speaks only in her native tongue, prompting hubby Jason to remark, “Sometimes it seems like we’re speaking two different languages.” Tom and Sonya still have money problems, but now they’re a couple of swingers in S&M gear with a penchant for 1970s style “key parties.” Malcolm still has his health problems and British accent, but he’s also saddled with a goth daughter with more piercings than a pin cushion. And as for Officer Burris, he might just be a Chippendales-style stripper this time round, or at least he could be once he shows off his very own pair of bulging guns.

There may be holes in Colleary’s twisty-turny script (like why doesn’t Malcolm kill himself the day after the “No Suicide” clause expires if he’s so afraid that the coroner might suggest that he killed himself before 12:01 a.m.?) Then again, by the end of Act One, that particular hole did seem to get plugged, so who knows? Or indeed who cares? Certainly not this reviewer, who simply enjoyed the curvy, bumpy ride.

There’s a running sound gag in Act Two that’s straight out of Laugh-In that some may find too lowbrow, but it made me laugh every time someone said “Ikea.” And Act Two’s initially baffling conceit that whenever characters find themselves in a spotlight, they speak in verse, had several of its own hilarious payoffs by act’s end. And if Act Two veers off into its own nutty storyline rather than follow Act One’s climactic scenes to the letter, my advice is to forgo any insistence on a perfect plot match and simply to go with the flow.

Director Kathleen Rubin deserves high marks for keeping her actors on the same solemn page in Act One and each as over-the-top as the other in Act Two.

36537_469084649816451_343838297_n If the entire cast seem to have been having the time of their lives by the final fade to black, then no wonder. How often does an actor get to take the same character to night-and-day extremes? Agor, Alfano, Bajos, Christensen, Evans, Locke, and Smith prove themselves ready for Days Of Our Lives in Act One and MADtv in Act Two and I relished every minute of their first act intensity and second act craziness.

Truth be told, the Parks home does look a tad posher than the way they talk about it, but it’s one snazzy scenic design, Keiko Moreno’s best set yet and one whose walls turn out to be translucent scrims which, when lit from above by lighting designer extraordinaire Matt Richter, take us inside the previously hidden Parks kitchen and bedrooms and then go back to being walls. Richter also serves as technical director.

Costumer Julianna Bolles-Morrison has given each character outfits that suit the Sad Face hyperreality of Act One and the Happy Face madness of Act Two. Alicia Deyer gets top marks for both set dressing and props. Sound design is uncredited, but a winner too for its various effects and for mood-setting music before, during, and between the two acts.

Happy Face Sad Face is produced by Russell Boast. Michael Chernow is executive director. Rebecca Schoenberg is stage manager.

379247_469544549770461_1133198505_n Forget about approaching Happy Face Sad Face with preconceived notions of what it should be and should not be. And rest assured that it’s all right to laugh once in a while in Act One. I certainly did, but mostly in delight at each delicious new “I didn’t see that coming” plot twist. And it’s okay to groan every once in a while when Act Two takes it a tad or two too far. I wasn’t quite sure of what to expect when entering the Lillian, though the “high concept” had me intrigued to say the least. And you know what? High concept or not, Happy Face Sad Face left this reviewer quite Happy Faced indeed.

Lillian Theatre, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
January 27, 2013
Photos: Randolph Evans

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