02 September 2010

'Have a Nice Life' (2010 New York Fringe Festival)

My friend Diana and I planned to take in two Fringe XIV performances on Friday, 20 August, but private considerations prevented us from making the afternoon show we’d selected, so we caught the 10 p.m. performance of Have a Nice Life: a therapeutic musical at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in the West Village. Produced by the Philadelphia troupe Nice People Theatre Company, Have a Nice Life is slugged "Direct from a sold-out run at the Edinburgh Fringe" in its listings and promotions (and, indeed, a check of the ‘Net shows a passel of nice notices from across the pond). Advertising being what it is, when Diana proposed this show, including the promotional line in her message, I succumbed.

Silly me!

I wasn’t even going to report on Nice Life because I think it’s too insubstantial—and I didn’t figure it would resurface anywhere after the NYIFF production, so no one would be likely to encounter it down the road. I was curious, however, so I looked on the ‘Net to see if there were any responses to the play, and I was surprised to find not only that there were quite a few comments, but that so many of them were not just positive but excessively laudatory. Words like “brilliant,” “clever,” and “exceptional” turned up all over the coverage. I also noticed that besides the 2009 Edinburgh performances, the show has had a life at other festivals (New York Music Theatre Festival, 2006; Philadelphia Fringe Festival, 2008) as well in its home base in Philly. I don’t get it, frankly. The show was tolerable (because the cast was good and, more significantly, enthusiastic) but derivative, slight, unsurprising, and even predictable (except for the ending); it was pleasant but unremarkable. Diana seemed to have agreed with me—it was like something a bunch of grad students might put together, we concluded. Too knowing for undergrads, but not meaningful enough for pros. So let me try to make a case for my side.

Not everyone was positive about Nice Life. There were a few naysayers who seemed to be closer to my estimation than that of the apparent majority. On the other hand, one blogger was far more negative than I was. He characterized the “unsalvageable” play as progressing “from kinda dumb to monumentally stupid to ‘I want to rip my head off’" (the italics are original). Neither Diana nor I found the experience that excruciating.

The play’s gimmick is that we’re watching a group-therapy session in real time. (The play’s subtitle is a therapeutic musical, which is supposed, I guess, to suggest that the content is both about therapy—which it is, minimally—and serves as therapy for us. Ummm . . . NO.) The group leader is Patrick (Benjamin Michael), a very young and uncertain therapist who offers clichés and programmed exercises like word association and role-playing to the group while dealing with his own issues of inadequacy. (Patrick’s been on the job 18 months or something like that, but Michael looks and acts like a college peer counselor rather than a pro.) The group members are people we’ve met many times before, especially on TV sitcoms (I particularly think of the old Bob Newhart Show—which was much funnier): Chris (Dorian Belle), heavyset and closing in on middle age, a mama's boy who resents his mother's new beau and has never had a girlfriend of his own because he’s holding out for an “old fashioned romance”; Jean (Megan Martinez), an angry and obstinate ex-teacher who has difficulty sustaining relationships and controlling her temper; Frank (Gregg Pica), a swaggering mailman who attends the sessions to hook up with “chicks”; Jackie (Amy Acchione), talkative and needy, a frazzled mother of three who says she doesn’t have any friends; and Barbara (Nicole Paloux), dressed in black leather and high boots, a belligerent and anti-social hard-ass who’s attending the group by court order (for reasons she won’t disclose). Each character gets a song or two, but we never get to know much about them beyond their basic problems, which are pretty familiar and minimally examined. Book writer Matthew Hurt often brings up topics the play doesn't explore, such as the suggestion that macho poseur Frank might be gay.

Patrick reveals his inexperience at the outset by letting Jackie, who’s been absent for several sessions (having a baby, we soon learn), bring a new member to the group with no notice. Of course, if he didn’t, there’d be no play since the only excuse for the sparks that provide the impetus for what follows is the arrival of an interloper within the ”circle of trust.” It’s contrived, but then so is everything else in Nice Life. The stranger is Amy (Miriam White, an NPTC co-founder), Jackie’s new best friend whom she met three hours earlier when Amy discovered Jackie's new-born baby alone in his stroller outside the store Jackie was shopping in. This is supposed to be endearing and quirky; in real life, though, parents have been arrested for doing that. Amy at first presents herself as someone without a problem (Jackie led her to believe that the group was for social networking), but the tension of the session impels her to reveal that everything she’s said are half-truths. So now everyone’s got a problem, as you knew they would, and Patrick’s supposed to help his patients learn to cope with them. Except he doesn’t—and no one gets any help. That might have been a comic twist, except I don’t believe we’re supposed to notice that nothing happens. We’re supposed to find it all . . . well, sweet, I guess. (One reviewer thought this was okay because everything was so darned amusing. Well, I demur.)

It often seemed to me that Hurt and Composer-lyricist Conor Mitchell just don’t know enough about psychology and psychotherapy to tackle the subject matter they chose to exploit. That’s the grad-student sort of dynamic again—their ambitions outran their abilities. Some research or a consultant might have helped, however. Complicite’s recent play, A Disappearing Number, which was partly about higher math, had two mathematicians on call—one who was an actor and one who’d been a supporter of the company since its start. When I directed an adaptation of Chekhov’s story Ward Six, set in a mental hospital, I asked a shrink I knew to advise on the patients’ ailments and behavior. When I played Dr. Spivey in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the director invited a psychologist to meet with us during one rehearsal and we visited a state hospital one day to observe the patients’ and staff’s behaviors. The Nice Life team didn’t seem to have delved at all deeply into the truth of a therapy group, even if their ultimate intention was to make fun of one. It was all very superficial and unsatisfying on a dramatic level. (I remarked on departing the Lortel that night that with a show like Next to Normal having gotten so much positive attention, it’s almost embarrassing to have one like Have a Nice Life playing just downtown.)

The therapy session format gives each character a moment in the spotlight. Hurt’s plot is thin and the characters are underdeveloped to the point of being one-dimensional and they’re essentially self-centered, so there’s no dramatic interplay between or among any of them. On top of this, they’re not especially interesting and they’re not really very . . . well, Nice People. (In his review of the NYMTF in ’06, Charles Isherwood wrote that “the mostly unlikable characters were embroiled in pedestrian and familiar emotional turmoil.”) Since there’s no substantial connection among any of the characters, however, aside from the contrivance that brings them together, the plot’s like a simplistic version of those Grand Hotel/Airplane scenarios that assemble a bunch of strangers and then tosses in a twist that unites them all temporarily. This formulaic set-up doesn’t permit any character to develop a dramatic arc, so while there’s a lot of movement, there’s very little action. Then the ending, too, feels rushed and unmotivated. (That’s where the play’s title comes from. Despite sounding like a sprightly, if empty, expression of hope, it’s really a sarcastic farewell. I won’t explain that more explicitly here—it would give away that tacked-on ending.)

The story is told mostly through song and the score was well played by musical director Tom Brady on piano and Joseph Yasso on drums. Mitchell borrows too frequently from others, however; NPTC called the show “an homage to American musical theater,” but the music is repetitive and derivative, sounding like minor Sondheim. The songs all sound alike, almost as if the score were one, long song broken up by occasional dialogue scenes. I don’t have the musical sophistication to describe the composition accurately, but it’s what I’d call a kind of pop recitative or Sprechgesang, like “Getting Married Today” from Company, but not nearly as clever or amusing. Every character gets a number or two, usually backed by the rest of the company as chorus/ensemble, in which she or he reveals the surface aspects of a character flaw. Nancy Berman Kantra's choreography, except when the actors dance with folding umbrellas for one cute parody of Busby Berkeley’s parasols, is uninspired and equally repetitive and familiar. (It doesn’t help that the cast are better actors and singers than they are dancers. The Lortel’s stage is also a little cramped for a seven-dancer ensemble to do much but strut and cakewalk.) The direction of Bill Felty (another company originator) keeps the actors busy moving but in unmotivated ways. The group members seem always to be carrying their chairs out of or back into the “circle of trust.” When characters sing solos, they cross down front with the ensemble behind them in a 19th-century semicircle.

Yet the actors sell the show as well as they can, and thanks to them, the 90 minutes pass reasonably painlessly. The cast is appealing and talented enough to make this new musical (which actually goes back to ‘03 in an earlier version) an acceptable summer evening show, but no more. NPTC’s Fringe program insert for Nice Life includes the slogan “So Nice you’ll want to see it Twice!” Well, no—not so much.

[I gather from reading past reviews and announcements for Have a Nice Life that there have been considerable changes since it premièred at the New York Music Theatre Festival four years ago. Mitchell and Hurt did some script revisions in Philadelphia (the composer’s Irish; the book writer’s a Brit) and a whole new cast and different director and choreographer have come in. I can only describe what I see, of course, but it’s possible, as one writer who saw and reviewed both New York performances suggests, that the changes have diminished the play’s power and effectiveness. If that’s so, then another shift could render Nice Life an entirely different experience—but, of course, I can’t predict that. Caveat emptor, as they say.]

[Fringe XIV ran from Friday, 13 August, to Sunday, 29 August 2010, with 197 events in 18 venues around lower Manhattan. Have a Nice Life played at the Lortel from 20 to 22 August.]

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