Fragile facade 

Happy unravels in all the right ways

We all have them in our lives: People who are impossibly, relentlessly happy. People who, no matter what time of day it is or what seems to go wrong, no matter if their car breaks down, they lose their job or their cat eats all of their socks, seem to have that same shit-eating grin, while the rest of us hapless bastards just try to cope. Is anyone really that happy? That's the question posed by playwright Robert Caisley in his ninth original work, titled, you guessed it, Happy.

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The jovial subject of Happy is Alfred Rehm. On the surface, happy is exactly what this guy seems to be. Why wouldn't he be? He has a great job teaching French literature. He's been married to his loving, supportive wife, Melinda, for 14 years. Melinda, for her part, is on the verge of starting her own business selling promotional items to hospital gift shops. And together the two have a daughter, Clare, whom they love. The story begins with Alfred's arrival at his BFF Eduardo's bohemian house where he and Melinda are invited for dinner. There, Alfred has a surprising encounter with Eduardo's new girlfriend, the striking anarchic artist Eva.

The night starts out innocently enough, with a sniping, yet playful Eva making unexpected quip after quip to get a rise out of a perpetually startled Alfred. As the dinner party wears on, it becomes clear that not everything in the well-mannered optimist's world is what it appears to be.

Happy was nominated for the Woodward/Newman Drama Award before being selected by the National New Play Network to open at four theaters across the country in a rolling world premiere. It's easy to see why. Caisley's script is strong, with only the occasional cheesy or obvious turn. The clever dialogue is peppered with amusing lines like "He's a cheery fucker." It's a deep-themed drama masquerading as a situational comedy. The tonal shift of the three-act play is gradual, not quick or jarring, with the structure of the story mirroring the change in Alfred's demeanor. Caisley has opted to make bold creative choices that you wouldn't expect.

Jere Lee Hodgin, of UM's School of Theatre and Dance, directs the Montana Repertory Theatre's rendition of Happy. With about 200 productions under his belt, Hodgin has some experience getting good performances out of his actors, and that's true here. Andrew Roa, a Los Angeles-based actor, hits the nail on the head as Alfred's best bud, the bohemian artist, whose free-spirited demeanor and love of women suggests a partying past. Angela Billadeau brings the earnest and well-meaning Melinda to life as a mousy librarian-type trying her best to keep a sunny disposition. Watching her reaction to her troubled hubby's public breakdown becomes increasingly uncomfortable as the final scene progresses. Once Alfred starts to unravel, you can see from her horrified facial expressions that there's no going back to the way things used to be.

Andy Meyers is believable as the production's central figure when he's more polite and reserved. He might be holding back a little during the moments Alfred's carefully manufactured facade begins to crack. The performance is memorable, though with a guy wound as tightly as Alfred, dialing up his life-altering tantrum to 11, rather than 8, might have made it even more so.

The standout performance of Happy belongs to Hillary Sea Bard. Her nuanced take on the play's prickly provocateur, Eva, takes her from alluring charmer to obnoxious meddler and back again. Bard brings a surprising vulnerability to the character. Eva could have easily been portrayed as just an unlikable, mean-spirited bitch in less capable hands.

Also worth noting: Scenic designer Jason J. McDaniel and lighting and sound designer Morgan Cerovski have crafted a sleek, modern set that looks exactly like what you'd expect to see from the digs of a post-modern artist. It includes actual work from local artists, such as sculptor Bradley Allen and UM art education professor Jennifer Combe.

Even with a few minor story and performance issues, UM's Happy is engaging and often surprising as the uneasy events progress into a fever pitch. It will put a smile on your face, but not for the reasons you expect.

Happy continues at UM's Masquer Theatre Thu., Nov. 1, though Sat., Nov. 3, at 7:30 PM nightly. $16/$10 student rush.

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