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Betsy Aidem, Ally Sheedy, and Mark Blum in "The Triple Happiness"
Fiction's Hold
By Caridad Svich

The Triple Happiness
By Brooke Berman
McGinn/Cazale Theater
2162 Broadway
Box office: 212-246-4422


Brooke Berman's The Triple Happiness throws into doubt the very acts of theatre making and writing. This new play's subject is fiction itself: how a writer is born, and how stories get made. The protagonist at first seems to be a young man named Mike on holiday break from Vassar College who is intent on becoming a writer--a too-familiar convention involving an insecure, sensitive young man returning to his emotionally distant parents in anomie-riddled suburbia--but he turns out not to be the play's center.

Directed by Michael John Garces, The Triple Happiness begins with a mysterious short scene between Mike (played with finesse by Keith Nobbs) and a slightly older working-class man named Jamie (Jesse J. Perez in an all-too-short role) on a train. The young man is "collecting stories," he says. He "collects other people's stories" because he does not have his own. He is aware enough of his own dilemma to voice it and act as witness to and investigator of the lives that surround him. He is the empty boy waiting to be filled by other people's dreams and visions.

It's not clear whether Mike has any talent for writing, although he expresses a strong desire to write, or to imagine himself at least as potentially a "great American writer." His parents certainly don't think him exceptional. He's not "Holden Caulfield," his father says, and thus the play begins to turn on how people wish to see themselves in fictional characters, even model their daily lives on fictional ones. This notion is further enhanced by the arrival of a famous movie star on the skids--named Tessa and played with dry wit by the production's marquee star Ally Sheedy--who rather unexpectedly and abruptly decides to stay at the young man's house for the holidays. She was invited by his father Stan (played with economy and lightness by veteran stage actor Mark Blum), whom she met casually at a party. She is the movie star they both lust after on the screen, who arrives to ignite their lives with her celluloid glamour. Tessa is the play's catalyst, a sexual animal who detonates everyone's libidos and, in Orton-ian fashion, wreaks serious havoc before making her exit and satisfying her own curious, unexplained desires.

Mike and Stan are in Tessa's teasing thrall, as is also the young man's mother Liz (played with charming distractedness by Betsy Aidem). But another young woman symbolically named Hope (played with brilliant grace by Marin Ireland) is waiting on the sidelines. She has a decidedly unhealthy crush on Mike, and recounts her longings in direct address, writing all the while in a journal. She witnesses the increasingly disruptive negotiations between Tessa and the young man's family with mischief and peculiar fondness. She too is an aspiring writer, we come to find out, and she is living through her stories until she decides that she also wants to enter someone else's story. Late in Act One, she makes the bold move to act upon her sexual craving, and she shows up at Mike's house unannounced. Fiction is set to meet reality. Or is it?

Berman has constructed the play as a sequence of short scenes that center on either emotional or physical impotence, or on psychological longing. Stan and Liz engage in brief, elliptical exchanges that illustrate their incompetence as partners and their desire to be freed from the Cheeveresque suburban ennui that wraps them like a cocoon. Mike barely speaks to them and instead becomes Tessa's object of cynical affection. She toys with him, turns him on, and leaves him. Hope tries to win his attention but, being non-mediatized and therefore commonplace, she can't compete with the screen siren's allure. Hope doesn't have a public image onto which Mike or Stan can project their fantasies. She is a marginal figure. Her impact on Mike, even after confessing her love/lust for him, is minimal. Yet Hope continues to write and soon it appears that she may indeed be writing the entire play.

There is a strong but not overstressed suggestion that the whole play may be Hope's fiction: a series of scenes where she is playing out imagined scenarios involving the young man she pines for and the movie star she admires, who may or may not be her real mother. Berman establishes a clean, almost sit-com surface against which more elusive, Pirandellian games are played. Some viewers may be seduced by the familiar lines of plot, presentation and subject matter--including an extensive, amusing mocking commentary on 1980s pop music and New Wave--but the play's real satisfaction is in the endgame machinations of Berman's figures in a blitzed, lonely, drunken world.

Berman writes about writing, and about the ease and comfort of lies: the ecstatic, orgasmic happiness of making things up, the cost of creation be damned. She is giddy on the brave-new-world sentiments her characters crave. And because the play's surface is cut along recognizable American realistic-comic lines, and staged and cast with high-profile performers, it's indeed easy to believe it's just another slickly crafted, well-made American coming-of-age story. There's more there, though.

In scene after scene the work moves in unexpected directions, evading the realistic comic conventions that seem to control the plot. The characters move in and out of events grasping at cause-and-effect understandings, yet they have no place to fulfill their needs. Berman sets her figures up in one stylistic world but then refuses to follow out their fates there, implying she doesn't want to write the play she started. It's as if the action were set in the world of Marivaux and Corneille, in its approach and manners, but nevertheless operates like an environment of Vonnegut's. We seem to be witnessing the act of writing itself rather than an investigation of it.

If The Triple Happiness were to embrace fully its wickedly schizoid nature, it could be quite a powerful play. Yet, neither the play's structure nor the production rise to its ambitions, despite the laudable efforts of a very talented artistic team. The work seems to defy itself, detonate before us. The familiar lines deceive and disallow pleasure. The characters' outsized dreams about perfect fictional fates don't fit in the outwardly serene, troubled house. Their rampant desires are constantly thwarted by plot moves that prevent full release of their id-driven passions. Nevertheless, the play holds promise. Berman's veiled critique of fiction is beguiling and provocative. She has a sharp wit and a passionate heart. Her earlier play Smashing, produced by the Play Company in New York last season, demonstrated she is an astute chronicler of disaffection and youthful malaise. It's audacious of her, then, to put on display her incredibly conflicted feelings about writing, wondering whether it should rule one's life, or whether by writing one avoids life.

At the end her characters stand in suspension. The young woman who is becoming a writer and who has slowly become the protagonist stands next to one of her fictional creations. She is wary but optimistic as she takes his hand and prepares to go on an adventure. "Choose fiction," she seems to be saying, because it is in fiction that the future lies. The ambiguity and wistfulness of the play's ending, however hopefully destined, point toward a larger societal condition, where individuals retreat into fiction, fantasy and games rather than confront the hunger, pain, and splendor of daily life.


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