Nothing is what it seems in The Happy Couple. The title of the play, to begin with, seems like a perfectly plausible name for a sunny Doris Day movie. It’s nothing like, and if you arrive at the Overtime Theater with any such illusion — thinking you’re going to see a “nice” play about a “nice” twosome — the grimy, exposed set will shatter it at once.
Green, graffiti-splashed, water-stained wallpaper oozes down to a beer can- and bottle-strewn floor. Stuffing leaks from a torn-up floral couch; a faded black, sticker-embellished coffee table sits in front of it. The place is thoroughly, authentically nasty, and by leaving the house lit pre-show, director Matthew Byron Cassi ensures that the audience absorbs the atmosphere just long enough to be convinced that no person could possibly be happy in this dump.
But then Christie Beckham enters, with a spring in her step, to the tune of Florence + the Machine’s “Kiss With a Fist.” She raises her arms over her dark, shaggy hair for the chorus, loads a pipe, takes a hit, and things stop looking quite so cheerless. Beckham is Angel, and this is the squat she shares with two other marginally employed urban homesteaders, Billy (Matthew Halteman, volatile) and Eddie (E.J. Crowell, slick).
Angel is hardly a saint, but local playwright James Venhaus eases into the depths of her depravity, alternating humor and horror throughout. At first she is a mere bully, jovially deriding Billy for his inability to roll a J and speak simultaneously. Beckham has a history of playing tough broads at Overtime — most recently, a pair of femme fatales — but in The Happy Couple she flexes far less glamorous acting muscles, to great success.
The squatters take to hiding when their modest party is crashed by Angel’s opposite number: Mary Elizabeth (Courtney Coston), a blond sweetheart in a full pink skirt, has lured her lawyer husband Michael (Tyler Keyes) to this hole, their first mutual residence, as a surprise 10-year anniversary gift.
This isn’t the kind of present the visibly disgusted, terribly well-groomed Michael had in mind, but like any good partner he knows how to flip the switch from disappointment to enthusiasm. He claps and bequeaths a shiny new bracelet to his elated wife. The revelation of fine jewelry pleases the squatters, too, who emerge from concealment and descend on the celebratory spouses.
“We used to live here,” Michael attempts to explain with a familiar, television-commercial-like inflection. The trespassers should be robbed and thrown out, but instead, through veritable gymnastics of dialogue and reason, the fishes-out-of-water stick around. To her husband’s dismay, chipper Mary Elizabeth is bent on proving that despite their yuppie appearances, they, too, used to lounge around the old place and get high. (Angel and Billy might buy it, but Coston, beautifully credible in every other regard, would better convince the audience if she did not exhale with such haste.)
With the surfacing of the evening’s unforeseen events, the couple’s profound difference of opinion as to what constitutes a fun night out emerges, as does their mutual lack of regard for each other’s happiness. Just as the very real threat of physical harm dawns on Mary Elizabeth and she’s ready to book, Michael, willfully ignorant of her fear, becomes intent on staying to regale Eddie, a musician, with his air-guitar-playing chops. An utter square trying to project cool, Keyes is uproarious as he picks at imaginary strings (and I don’t just write that so that he’ll forgive me — full disclosure — for blowing the fervent Acting II scene we were assigned at Trinity a half-decade ago). All the while his wife sits, forlorn, in the back corner of the room. Like so much else in The Happy Couple, their contentment is mere artifice.
Cassi, whose production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead received a rave review from this critic, has a gift for blocking talky, multi-performer scenes in a kinetic way, and for staging believable violence. The Happy Couple’s actors are up to the challenge, too, lounging harmlessly one moment and physically threatening one another other the next. Ironically, the play’s most gripping scene of brutality takes place offstage — kudos, Venhaus — after which I was sure the play had ended.
It probably could have, which is not to say that the second act is bad or not entertaining, only that it draws out what was so neatly encapsulated in the first half. Both acts will leave you queasy so prepare to get your heart broken — in a good way. •