The mating habits of scientists are under intense scrutiny by playwrights these days, judging from the premieres of Pursued by Happiness at the Road Theatre, House of the Rising Son at Atwater Village, and Completeness and Silent Sky, the two full-fledged productions of the Pacific Playwrights Festival at South Coast Repertory. I wrote about House of the Rising Son last week, but I’m overdue in writing about the wonderful Pursued by Happiness and the South Coast plays.
Keith Huff’s Pursued by Happiness might be the most immediately accessible of these plays, in part because it’s the only one of them that mines the evergreen meet-the-parents situation for its maximum potential.
Frank (Mark St. Amant) and Julie (Avery Clyde) are both 41-year-old biochemists, working as colleagues in a pharmaceutical company (Eli Lilly, to be precise). They both have reached a point in their lives where they know they need more than the brilliant careers that have sustained them so far. Yet each of them carries some intense psychological baggage from the past — baggage that is opened wide during their visits to their respective parents.
The two sets of parents are played by only one set of two actors, Elizabeth Herron and Tom Knickerbocker, who transform themselves into considerably different people over the course of successive scenes. Robin Larsen’s staging of Huff’s play is mostly realistic — but the performances of Herron and Knickerbocker add an alchemical kick to the otherwise remarkable verisimilitude.
The structure of the play is outlined at the beginning of the written script, although not in the program, in playfully mock-academic terms. The “Thesis” of the first act is “Life is Meaningful & Happiness Is Possible.” The “Antithesis” of the second act is “Life Is Absurd & Happiness Is Impossible.” The “Synthesis” of the third act is “Life Is Absurd & Happiness Is Possible.”
Likewise, the individual scenes are dubbed with abstruse-sounding titles, the most important of which is “The Advent of Adult Neurogenesis,” which was Julie’s post-doc specialty. But even those of us who have forgotten too much of our science education should not be intimidated by any of this. And despite the play’s elaborate structure, it’s actually so brief that no intermission is necessary.
Adult neurogenesis is, duh, the process in which new neurons can be generated in adults. Julie helpfully and hopefully interprets this for the non-scientists as a suggestion that we can be “pursued by happiness” as opposed to being engaged in “the pursuit of happiness” (which happens to be the title of another interesting contemporary comedy, by Richard Dresser, produced a few years ago at Laguna Playhouse).
At any rate, Huff endows these scientists with such resonant human traits, as well as such sharply comic turns of phrase, that their story should be irresistible to just about any theatergoer of whatever age or academic background. The play marks a considerable advance of Huff’s storytelling skills beyond his The Bird and Mr. Banks, which the Road previously produced.
Of the two South Coast plays, I was more intrigued by Itamar Moses’ Completeness. The scientists here are still graduate students, as opposed to the mid-career scientists in Pursued by Happiness, and they are not yet resigned to the idea that their relationships can’t always be worked out like algorithms.
And so they talk — and talk — in some entertainingly circular patterns. This is not to say that they do nothing else. They also engage in enough casual sex that no one is likely to complain, as Eliza Doolittle does in My Fair Lady, “talk, talk, talk…is that all you blighters can do?” But their hyper-analytical frame of mind prevents their relationships from developing into something deeper.
Pam MacKinnon’s staging is fun, with Karl Miller and Mandy Siegfried as the couple at the heart of the analysis. But Moses introduces some meta-theatrical stunts, presumably as illustrations of some of the characters’ intellectual observations, that simply leave most audience members wondering if these events were “part of the play” or whether they were inadvertent mistakes of the production. Instead of demonstrating the theories that are on the table, they serve mostly to distract our attention from the characters to the author, leaving the graduate students stranded on the sidelines.
At least Completeness goes down some unexpected alleys. That’s more than you can say for Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky, which closed last weekend at South Coast. It often feels like a dutiful women’s history month project, paying tribute to the independent thinker Henrietta Leavitt (Monette Magrath), who made an important astronomical discovery in the early 20th century. The script includes what feels like a pro forma romance with Leavitt’s initially male chauvinist supervisor, who eventually comes around to recognizing Leavitt’s worth as a scientist, if not as a lover, but it downplays the fact that Leavitt was also quite deaf, according to a program note. The play has a whiff of the synthetic — not unusual in plays that seek to honor outstanding people at the expense of examining them more closely.
Pursued by Happiness, Road Theatre, 5108 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Fri-Sat 8 pm; Sun 2 pm. Closes May 14. 877-369-9112. www.RoadTheatre.org.
Completeness, South Coast Repertory, Argyros Theatre, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tues-Sat, 7:45 pm; Sat-Sun, 2 pm. Closes May 8. 714-708-5555. www.scr.org.
Pursued by Happiness photo by Deverill Weekes.
Completeness photo by Scott Brinegar.