Los Angeles Theater Review: HAPPY FACE SAD FACE (Elephant Lillian Theatre)

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by Tom Chaits on January 25, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles


The concept of Happy Face Sad Face is an intriguing one that consists of two one act plays; the first a drama, the second a comedy. Now before you go all “been there, seen that” on me, consider this twist. The program teases that both one acts are “…the same story told from polar opposite perspectives.” Is your interest piqued? I know mine was. Much to my dismay, what seemed to be an idea with great promise was in the end a major missed opportunity. While both plays were in their own way very entertaining, the end result unfortunately did not live up to expectations. Ultimately there were too many character, dialogue and plot alterations for the acts to truly be different versions of the “same” story. Instead, what writer R. J. Colleary serves up is merely two one acts with similarities.

Tom Chaits' Stage and Cinema review of HAPPY FACE SAD FACE at the Lillian in HollywoodAs you enter the theater, you are engulfed by rolling thunder and a torrential downpour accompanied by gloomy music perfectly suited to the drama that is about to unfold (it was one of the best storm effects I have heard in any theater thanks to the impressive sound designer Matt Richter). The setting is a suburban household modestly decorated in earth-tone drab, a terrific set by Keiko Moreno that utilizes the space perfectly. As the lights come up, two upstairs bedrooms are revealed from behind a scrim. In one sits a young couple, Jason and Emily Parks (Tom Christensen and Krizia Bajos). Jason is a white bread insurance salesman and Emily his fiery Latina wife.  In the other bedroom are Jason’s visiting parents, Tom and Sonya Parks (Thomas F. Evans and Perry Smith) who have fallen on hard times and who are about to ask for a bailout from their unsuspecting son. Suddenly in the dark of night comes a knock on the door. Enter Malcolm Summerall (Rob Locke) a suicidal, gun toting client of Jason’s. Shortly after, Malcolm’s daughter Clementine (Sarah Agor) arrives soon to be followed by Officer Burris (Eddie Alfano). As the act progresses Malcolm holds the entire household hostage as a series of plot twists and turns worthy of an Agatha Christie mystery are revealed building to a satisfying and unexpected conclusion.

Knowing the premise of the production, I couldn’t stop myself from trying to figure out how this script and story would be played comically. Anticipation builds during the intermission while the set is transformed from bleak to bright. The beige couch throw is now a Mexican blanket, the pillows are now brimming with color, splashes of rainbow knickknacks are peppered around the set. The mood music has switched from doom-and-gloom to decidedly upbeat, ending with “Comedy Tonight.” Houselights dim….let the good times roll.

Tom Chaits' Stage and Cinema review of HAPPY FACE SAD FACE at the Lillian in HollywoodAs is expected the second act does a complete 180 and – while ultimately watchable – it is so different from Act I that it can hardly be considered the same show. Instead of employing subtle alterations and nuance to switch the focus from drama to comedy, Colleary completely “jumps the shark.” Emily goes from subtly ethnic wife to a raging Sophia Vergara-esque screaming banshee. Jason’s parents are transformed from a conservative couple into a leather wearing, riding crop swinging, sado-masochistic “whip me, beat me” duo. Broad comedy ensues complete with sound-effect enhanced spit takes, spotlighted character asides and general mayhem. Sure it’s all fun to watch but ultimately senseless because it is so removed from what you saw in Act I that it really needs to be considered a complete and separate entity.

Tom Chaits' Stage and Cinema review of HAPPY FACE SAD FACE at the Lillian in HollywoodOn the performance side the entire ensemble is terrific, shaped by the crafty direction of Kathleen Rubin. They work well together, are extremely focused and really sell both interpretations. Rob Locke is called upon to use several different accents and he does so impeccably. He is the real standout in this uniformly excellent cast. Had they been called upon by the writer and director to make the minor adjustments in character needed to truly make this production “…the same story told from polar opposite perspectives” they undoubtedly would have been able to live up to the challenge. Alas, they were not and while their work on display here is worth your time you will none-the-less be disappointed at the squandered potential which prevents Happy Face Sad Face from being a truly unique theatrical experience.

photos by Randolph Adams

Happy Face Sad Face
presented by Russell Boast at The Elephant Lillian Theatre in Hollywood
scheduled to end on February 23, 2013
for tickets, call 323-960-7770 or visit Plays 411

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