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Chasing Happy

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - October 19, 2023

The Cast
Photo by John Quilty
Playwright Michel Wallerstein's Chasing Happy, a production of Pulse Theatre opening tonight at Theatre Row, is a well-acted if wobbly plotted comedy about a love triangle among three gay men that is nearly saved from diving headlong into the pit of cliché by the presence of two far more interesting women, the mother and the ex-wife of the central character.

Set in the summer home shared by Nick (Spencer Aste) and his ex Helen (Jenny Bennett), Chasing Happy is about the eternal search for the perfect relationship, including, perhaps especially, the all-important relationship we have with ourselves. This aspect is stressed quite insistently in a series of short scenes in which we find ourselves attending a reading from a book with the same title as the play, said to have been written by Nick's former partner who tragically was shot and killed a decade earlier while attending a gay pride parade. These readings always end with an affirmation that we are encouraged to repeat aloud, both while we are sitting in the theater and "ten times each morning upon waking and ten times before going to bed."

The main plot thread involves the burgeoning relationship between the 54-year-old Nick, a successful architect who tends to wallow in self-pity ("I'm just the loser living in the shadow of my dead lover"), and his latest hope for rekindling his lost happiness, 27-year-old bartender and would-be artist Brad ("I'm more than just my ass"), whom Nick has brought home for some recreational sex and possibly more. The fly in the ointment is the fact that Brad (Schyler Conaway) has been living for the past three years with his boyfriend Rob (Christopher James Murray), who is close to Nick"s age and who is both possessive and insecure in his relationship with the younger man.

Which one will Brad choose to stay with? That's both the key plot turn and the MacGuffin of the play. Which brings us to the real star of the show, Nick's mother Maria (a delightful scene-stealing Antoinette LaVecchia). Maria is the playwright's best creation here, a real carpe diem character, eccentric, funny, brave, and unpredictable. When she happily enters the fray to the resounding sounds of Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana," the entire production rises to its own high note of comic originality. Think of Maria as a combination of Sophia Petrillo from "Golden Girls" and Madame Arcati from Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit and you will get an idea of LaVecchia's characterization.

Speaking of Coward, let's talk for a moment about the character of Helen, who is English and who is largely ignored among the collection of self-serving Americans. Jenny Bennet works miracles with what little she is given to do, and performs the role with all the dry wit and brittle sarcasm of a Coward heroine (e.g. Amanda in Private Lives). Helen has long accepted Nick's preference for other men, and the two have remained close friends, which explains her presence but not her underwritten purpose. She is an interesting and potentially complex character with problems of her own that are inadequately addressed, so that she does seem to have wandered into the script from another play altogether.

Overall, and despite some lovely performances, neither the playwright nor director Alexa Kelly has been able to pull it all together into a clearly defined style of comedy, and so what we get is a mash-up of rom-com, sit-com, dramedy, and farce, along with a set of disparate characters loosely held together by a series of scenes, often well-written in and of themselves, but which fail to coalesce into a seamless whole.

Chasing Happy
Through November 11, 2023
Pulse Theatre
Theatre Row, Theatre Five, 410 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current performance schedule: