Self-help gurus are easy to satirize; it's far harder to make them a source of pathos (look at Tom Cruise in Magnolia). However, that's just the task that Ottawa's May Can Theatre sets for itself in Happiness™, on at The Cultch through this Sunday at part of Upintheair Theatre's rEvoler festival. Tony Adams and Cory Thibert play James and Peter, two salesmen who work pitching products for HPL™, a company devoted to spreading Happiness, Prosperity, and Luxury to one and all.
Framed as a self-help seminar, the production begins in the lobby with local Vancouver recruits (Linnea Gwiazda and Morgan Murray) administering happiness assessment surveys and hydrating interested parties with Happiness tea and a cooling skin spray called Optimist (the faux products the company has come up with, and the puns that go with them, are truly impressive). Following the curtain speeches Adams and Thibert emerge and begin working the audience, whipping up the energy with their dance moves, dropping some local Vancouver references, and gauging our susceptibleness to their boyish charm by asking how many of us have felt sad in the last year, month, week, and day.
And yet this dramaturgical conceit turns out to be a false frame. Just as quickly as the audience is positioned as the guileless dupes to James and Peter's in-the-moment hucksterism the house lights go down and the fourth wall is purposefully re-erected. Turns out we are only meant to be eavesdropping on the salesmen's pre-show rehearsals and warm-up, as subsequent interactions between each of them and their tech person, Ted, demonstrate. More to the point, we discover that despite having drunk the HPL™ Kool-Aid®, James and Peter are far from happy, or even emotionally stable. James is preoccupied with the fact that his nephew has just been placed into foster care, and Peter still hasn't gotten over the collapse of his marriage. As their increasing desperation bubbles to the surface, threatening to derail the start of their seminar, James and Peter settle on a definitive gesture aimed at excising all negative thoughts and feelings once and for all--a frankly clumsy ending that involves a pair of wire cutters, some fake blood, and a somewhat mistimed blackout.
Beyond these structural issues, the production mainly didn't work for me because I couldn't muster any sympathy for the two leads. Their back stories are too sketchily drawn for one to connect with their vulnerability when it surfaces. And then there is the whole matter of the rivalry/bromance between James and Peter, who go back and forth between making needling digs about each other's professional and personal mistakes to saying how much they love and support each other, with the latter statements often accompanied by a lot of physical touching. That one of the piece's product demonstrations--for the Happiness Hook-Up™, a mouthpiece designed to stretch one's face into a permanent smile--has the men playing a married couple only ups the homosocial ante. At the same time, because the work's exploration of the codes of masculinity only ever stays at the surface, it risks reinforcing those codes in a manner that can register as borderline homophobic. (The play is clearly influenced by Daniel MacIvor's Never Swim Alone, which not so coincidently both Adams and Thibert appeared in while students at the University of Ottawa, but which also balances the genres of allegorical satire and realism far more complexly.)
In the end, the play's ambitions exceed the company's grasp (the work was co-created and directed by the third member of May Can Theatre, Madeleine Boyes-Manseau). Had they stuck to a concept piece satirizing the self-help industry, the play likely would have been hilarious--as it is, they have created a whole infrastructure of online videos, testimonials, and trademarked products that hints at how far they have already gone down this rabbit hole. It's wanting to make James and Peter more than just types that trips the creators up. On that front, there is more work to be done.