Sunny side up 

Playwright Rob Caisley's pursuit of Happy

For some of us, happiness seemed like a straightforward concept—until the United Nations commissioned a 2012 World Happiness Report and got everybody (at least those who read The Economist) reconsidering what happiness really means, how we achieve it and if it's even a realistic goal.

Playwright Rob Caisley's new play, Happy, which opens this week at UM's Masquer Theatre, addresses the complexities of happiness via three acts, all of which take place during a disastrous dinner party. Alfred, a man who seems unbelievably happy with everything in his life, ends up having dinner at the home of his friend Eduardo, a Bohemian artist type. Eduardo's new wife, Eva, turns out to be Alfred's opposite as a dour—though extremely honest—woman who doesn't believe in happiness. The clash between the two ends up unhinging Alfred, making him question his true feelings. The format, which Caisley calls a "parlor play," forces his characters into a space (around the dinner table) and time (one fateful evening) where social etiquette under pressure can disintegrate fast.

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  • Rob Caisley

"I've certainly been to dinner parties where somebody's had too much to drink and suddenly things spin out of control," says Caisley. "It's horrifying to watch. But it's also entertaining."

Caisley teaches dramatic writing at the University of Idaho, and, for the last five years, he's been a regular at the Missoula Colony, an annual gathering of playwrights, directors and actors. Happy got its first run-through as a reading at the Colony last year. Afterward, it was read at a theater in Philadelphia as part of the National New Play Network showcase, where it was picked to be produced at four different venues for a rolling "world premiere." One of those productions is in Missoula and will be directed by Jere Hodgin for Montana Rep Missoula.

The concept for Happy sprung out of two different events. One night, Caisley and Hodgin were sitting around Hodgin's house and they got to talking about honesty. "I can't remember where this came from but we came up with the term 'radical honesty,'" says Caisley. "The majority of people I know are not very honest with themselves or during their interactions with others."

Second, Caisley had asked his students at UI to think about character flaws for a dramatic writing assignment. That assignment got him thinking about how in most western literature, character flaws encompass vengeance, lust and jealousy, but he couldn't think of single play where the tragic flaw was the character's own happiness.

"So you have radical honesty from one character combined with this character who by all reports is the happiest guy you'll ever meet," says Caisley. "What would happen if these two characters ended up at the same party?"

Caisley has a penchant for dark absurdity. His previous play, Winter, is about fraternal twins who have it out at their mother's funeral. But his writing wasn't always so edgy. The first play he ever wrote, Third House on the Left, was a thinly disguised portrait of his family, that was really an excuse to test out gags. After that play, his dad told him, "Well, you've always got the acting."

"I think it's pretty funny that my dad saw acting as my fallback position," Caisley laughs. "But I had already realized early on I wanted to be a writer more than I wanted to be an actor." He wrote another play in college based on a friend who had Hodgkins lymphoma. "It actually had an extraordinary affect on the audience," he says. "I think it was a bad play because it was very melodramatic but I learned how to switch back and forth between comedy and pathos, how to use language and character and situation to affect the emotion of the audience."

Still, he considers his first real play—the one he says he'd feel comfortable sharing the script—to be The 22 Day Adagio. It's a very uncynical story based on a newspaper article he read about Vedran Smailovic, a cellist for the Sarajevo Opera during the Sarajevo war in the early '90s. Caisley's play, being political and depressing, was a tough sell and it sat on his agent's shelf for 10 years. "The Sarajevo war had vanished from the American imagination," he says. "But then we started bombing Baghdad."

At the time, Hodgin and Caisley didn't know each other, but Hodgin was looking to produce an original play for the Norfolk Summer Festival of Plays, one that dealt with the idea of collateral damage without explicitly evoking the Iraq war. The 22-Day Adagio ended up on his desk and he chose it.

Unlike The 22-Day Adagio, Happy leaves the audience uncertain. It's funny but it's also uncomfortable. It pokes at the earnestness of happiness. "Normally my mother loves everything I write, but she was really disturbed by this play," Caisley says. "And other people I know, too, were disquieted by it."

At last year's Colony there were a few people in the audience who expressed dismay at the thought that happiness doesn't always win out; that somebody's life might be destroyed because somebody else didn't believe in their happiness. But Caisley happily disagrees.

"That's not what the play's about," he says. "It's about asking the question: 'Are we as content and happy as we put out to the world?' I think that the character of Eva, while a lot of people hated her, just as many people thought she was the most honest person in the play."

Happy opens at UM's Masquer Theatre in the PARTV Center Fri., Oct. 19, and Sat., Oct. 20. It continues Wed. through Sat. until its closing night on Sat., Nov. 3. 7:30 PM nightly. $16/$10 student rush.

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