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Chasing Happy

 A five-character romantic comedy about a gay love triangle that unravels like a pilot for a television sitcom that borrows characterizations from other sitcoms.

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The cast of Michel Wallerstein’s “Chasing Happy” at Theatre Row (Photo credit: John Quilty)

Scotty Bennett

Scotty Bennett, Critic

Chasing Happy, written by Michel Wallerstein and directed by Alexa Kelly, is a five-character comedy about a gay love triangle. It unravels like a pilot for a television sitcom that borrows characterizations from other sitcoms. Despite the efforts of a skillful, hard-working ensemble, the show never rises to the challenge of solid character development within a believable story. It was not a well-spent two hours for this reviewer.

The show opens with Nick (Spencer Aste) sitting on a hassock, apparently in a bookstore, reading to an audience from a book entitled “Chasing Happy.” It is a best-seller said to have been written by Nick’s partner, who was killed ten years earlier at a gay pride parade. This scenic motif is repeated during the show, with self-help aphorisms presented to the audience at the end of the reading. These interludes may be connected to Nick’s processing of his loss, but that is never really made clear. There is also a feeling that Nick is not fully engaged with the whole reading process. It is a matter-of-fact presentation.

The next scene introduces the first element of the plot when a buff, twenty-something Brad (Schyler Conaway) enters the living room of a stylish suburban house in his briefs. It turns out to be the summer home in Provincetown, Massachusetts, of Nick who we now find out is a successful architect in his mid-50’s. Brad was a one-night stand for Nick, who is hoping for a more lasting relationship.

Schyler Conaway, Antionelle LaVecchia and Spencer Aste in a scene from Michel Wallerstein’s “Chasing Happy” at Theatre Row (Photo credit: John Quilty)

As Nick and Brad are establishing their moment of happiness, Helen (Jenny Bennett) enters. She is Nick’s ex-wife and best friend. After introductions and a brief conversation, Brad leaves while Nick acts like an adolescent having a crush on the boy next door. Helen and Nick begin a conversation about a range of things affecting mainly Nick’s life.

There is a banging on the door before Helen can tell Nick what she is there for. It is Rob (Christopher James Murray) in a rage because Nick had sex with Brad, his boy-toy for the last three years. Rob is about the same age as Nick. Helen steps in to settle things down before Rob does some real damage to Nick. Rob goes from being a raging bull to a calm pussycat through the intervention of Helen. A calm Rob leaves after having tea and a short conversation with Helen, without Nick in the room, about what ails her.

When Helen finally gets Nick’s undivided attention, she tells him she needs surgery. In the following conversation, insights into their personalities emerge, with Helen’s being clearer. This scene reveals the depth of their friendship, and it is also one of the few places where the character development seems on track to provide a better understanding of the inner workings of Nick and Helen.

Christopher James Murray and Schyler Conaway in a scene from Michel Wallerstein’s “Chasing Happy” at Theatre Row (Photo credit: John Quilty)

But at a moment when some solid character development is possible, in walks Marie (Antionette LaVecchia), Nick’s mother and a force of nature who has just arrived from Florida. LaVecchia delivers an energy that lifts the whole show. Her portrayal is a beautifully acted combination of Bea Arthur and Estelle Getty from the 1980’s sitcom The Golden Girls. We discover that Maria fell in love with a woman named Rose, and they lived together in a retirement home in Florida. LaVecchia effectively supports the cast without diminishing their efforts.

Bennett as Helen gives a solid portrayal of a woman entirely in control of her public persona but still struggling with her inner sense of self. Unfortunately, the play does not give her enough opportunity to display those qualities, instead opting for an occasional comment or observation about the circus that has arrived in Nick’s living room.

The combination of LaVecchia and Bennett provides some of the best moments in the show. Each character gives sharp commentary on what is happening between Rob, Nick, and Brad. It is almost worth sitting through the long two hours and some to see them do their thing.

Spencer Aste and Jenny Bennett in a scene from Michel Wallerstein’s “Chasing Happy” at Theatre Row (Photo credit: John Quilty)

Aste gives a competent portrayal of a character who has not been fully developed. There are suggestions of the inner emotional processes of the character, but those things are not fully explored. The actions never rise above a portrait of a man moving between superficial romantic interactions and moments of doubt and indecision.

Murray’s portrayal of Rob is uneven, which is more the director and playwright’s fault than the actor’s. When he first appears, his rage is overacted, dramatically becoming evident as he calms when Helen offers him a cup of tea. The scene would work better if he expressed being angry but not in a rage. Later, Murray effectively shows Rob’s gentle and loving nature, but again, for the audience, getting there takes patience.

And then there is Brad. Conaway brings the emotional struggles of a sexually attractive gay “boy” to life even with the constraints of a superficially defined character. He shows us a young man who dreams of being a successful artist while also aware that his body is the primary interest to most men, including Rob and Nick.

Spencer Aste and Christopher James Murray in a scene from Michel Wallerstein’s “Chasing Happy” at Theatre Row (Photo credit: John Quilty)

The ending is somewhat predictable as Rob, Nick and Brad’s relationship unfolds. The play needs editing and better character development. The comedic setups don’t payoff strongly and one is left with a feeling of was it worth the effort. Do we care about Nick and the affirmations of acceptance he gives at his book readings, or what happens to his romantic yearnings?

The set design by Christian Fleming is well realized although the primary set of the living room may not reflect a summer house one would find in Provincetown. The two other locations, a beach, and a building lot, are insets off the edge of the stage that work well without distracting from the main stage. Joyce Liao’s lighting design strengthens the shift in action to the small ancillary sets and the changing mood in scenes in the living room. The costume design by Elena Vannoni defines the character’s personalities without being distracting. Sound design by Joel Abbott is uneven depending upon what sound is called for at any given moment. The music choices work well with the characters’ history but the ocean background sound is uneven, being either too loud or too soft.

Chasing Happy (through November 11, 2023)

Pulse Theatre

Theatre Five at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call: 212-714-2442 ext. 45, or visit https://bfany.org/theatre-row/shows/chasing-happy/

Running time: two hours including one intermission

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Scotty Bennett
About Scotty Bennett (70 Articles)
Scotty Bennett is a retired businessman who has worn many hats in his life, the latest of which is theater critic. For the last twelve years he has been a theater critic and is currently the treasurer of the American Theatre Critics Association and a member of the International Association of Theatre Critics. He has been in and around the entertainment business for most of his life. He has been an actor, director, and stage hand. He has done lighting, sound design, and set building. He was a radio disk jockey and, while in college ran a television studio and he even knows how to run a 35mm arc lamp projector.

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