Reviews: Happiness & Other Reasons to Die

DC Theatre Scene

June 4, 2015 by Debbie Jackson

We are in darkness. A shatteringly loud gunshot explodes. The lights go up. There is a body under a cover, and a gruesome splattering of blood all over the room. Particularly disgusting: a huge splotch of gore on the refrigerator. Several people rush into the room. They are confused, then upset, then angry. Octogenarian Ella has, so to speak, jumped the gun. They had all agreed to die together so no one would have to go it alone. Thus begins happiness (and other reasons to die), Bob Bartlett’s new play and The Welders’ latest production at the Atlas.

Although the members of this suicide group made a most intimate commitment to each other, they’ve never met or talked, only communicating online, using monikers instead of their real names, purposely not divulging personal information. Add a backyard dog on his deathbed that somehow self-resuscitates and who also barks when he hears his name, (even whispered and correctly spelled), sudden creaky sounds, lights flickering at will, and a phonograph player that turns on by itself, and you’ve got a quirky little piece that unexpectedly grows on you.

happiness is extremely well acted, and energetically directed. Elan Zafir (as Jeb) leads the pack – with chiseled chin, quick stealthy moves, and perfect pitch delivery, he could just as easily be spouting dialogue from Mamet before heading out to commit a quick kill. Instead, his legs give out from under him periodically accompanied by a slight tremor hinting at more to come. Melissa Flaim is delightful as Misa, revealing just enough information about her character to appreciate her story, slowly letting down her guard to divulge her horrific secret at the climax of the play.

Carlos Saldana plays Emilio, an all around unapproachable character, stoically wounded, content to wallow in his pain alone. Who knows if he’s hit rock bottom in an unrelenting gloom of depression? But he doesn’t lift up out of it for a second, is the constant nay-sayer and seems totally incapable of seeing the light of day.

Two visitors round out the ensemble – Miyuki Williams gives her all as a medium tuned in to the spirit world, and Graham Pilato as Nolan, the replacement for the intended foursome, with enough ticks and insecurities to make you want to help him pull the plug, if not the trigger, to put him out of his misery.

The play’s premise is that the life force of people who come together, will spark enough energy to change the trajectory, even for an intended suicide pact, and Bartlett’s new script sets up interesting possibilities.

Aided by Gregg Henry’s’ creative direction, the script moves at a clipped pace reflecting on life’s tough breaks and the possibilities that even in the worst blizzard conditions in Duluth Minnesota, somehow hope can slip through the cracks and bring a reason to keep living. The only false note in Bartlett’s provocative and twisted developments is a note from deceased Ella tucked away and found a bit too conveniently near the end.

Lighting and sound directors, John D. Alexander and Kenny Neal respectively, bring otherworldly spooky elements to the scenes. Atlas’s intimate Lab Theatre II is filled to the gills with enough clutter to fill a lifetime (scenic design by Collin Ranney), truly reflecting a hoarder’s life fully if not peacefully lived.

One of the most creative touches is the connection to Bob Dylan throughout, culminating in jaw-dropping revelations at the end that will make you race to Google. Who knew?

happiness2
happiness (and other reasons to die)
Recommended
May 28 – June 13
The Welders at
Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H Street NE
Washington, DC
1 hour, 45 minutes with no intermission
Thursdays thru Sundays
Tickets: $20
Details
Tickets

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happiness takes you on an emotional roller coaster starting with that sudden shotgun blast and the chaos that follows: dealing with the defecated remains of a body sprawled on the floor, disgust with the filthy conditions, cleaning up the mess and getting to a better place, one step at a time. With each interchange the characters slowly realize they can open up and depend on each other for some semblance of support. Having already postponed commiting their “group finale” until after the Christmas Holidays, and then New Years, perhaps they’ll consider sticking around until at least the next day… and then maybe the next…

This is the third production developed via the “Welders” incubator group, a collective of five seasoned playwrights organized to support each others’ work, then rotate off to another five playwrights. It’s a smart, enterprising idea and merits attention and support, especially considering this latest creative offering of “happiness…”

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DCMetroTheaterArts

You are here: ‘happiness (and other reasons to die)’ at The Welders
‘happiness (and other reasons to die)’ at The Welders

by John Stoltenberg on June 1, 2015

You might think a suicide pact among losers who meet on line would not be a terribly good premise for a warmhearted comedy—much less a noir one à la Martin McDonaugh. You might assume there’s not a lotta laughs to be had from a pull-the-plug club. Assuming Chatroulette attracts the suicidal (which apparently it does), you might not care to watch a team of chatterers go terminal in real time on stage. But you would be wrong. Dead wrong. And the evidence of your mistakenness would be Bob Bartlett’s happiness (and other reasons to die). This new entry from The Welders, directed with fascinating dispatch by Gregg Henry, is a lively and offbeat end-of-life sitcom that is anything but grave.

First of all, there’s the awesome set, which you see first thing as you come in. With it, Scenic Designer Collin Ranney has virtually added a character to Bartlett’s play. It’s a wood-frame room without walls housing a distressed and dilapidated kitchen evidently inhabited by a hoarder—and it’s situated between facing rows of seats so that the audience can see through it to the opposite side.

That set’ll be the last thing the audience sees through for the next hour and a half. Once this riveting and rollicking comedic riff on life and death takes off, you don’t see anything coming.

And it takes off with a bang. Literally. A startling, shocking bang. Which other reviews might give away. But not this one.

Three would-be suicides have gathered here, a cabin on the outskirts of frigid Duluth. They have been cyber-summoned by an octogenarian, a woman whose kitchen this once was. The three are anonymous to one another except as their handles. We (and they) learn their real names are Jeb (Elan Zafir), Misa (Melissa Flaim), and Emilio (Carlos Saldaña).

The pretext for their gathering is a pact they’ve made with one another not to go to their deaths alone. They’re expecting a support group for those who have given up and are ready to give up the ghost. Except they may now be dealing with an actual ghost (an oxymoron, I know; but once you watch this funny-bone tickler, you’ll see what I mean).

In this dark winter’s tale there be chilling sound and light effects, devised by Lighting Designer John D. Alexander and Sound Designer Kenny Neal. There also be two surprise visitors. One is a sort of soothsayer, Misoka (Miyuki Williams). Another is another wannabe-dead pledge, Nolan (Graham Pilato, whose standout performance in this stellar cast was particularly poignant and moving).

Will they or won’t they off themselves? is rather an unsustainable through-line of suspense, since, this being hilarious from the get-go, you kinda guess that’s not gonna happen. But what swiftly turns out to be remarkable and richly rewarding about this play is that the suspense shifts to who these characters are, and who they become to one another, and what bonds them, and what become their reasons to live on.

The script has a few uncertain moments when its clever contrivances seem as exposed as the two-by-four studs and joists framing the playing space, and it sometimes seems oddly noncommittal about whether it wants to be a ghost story. But ultimately the play stands up as a sturdy construction, with payoffs of laughs that are their own lease on life.

happiness (and other reasons to die) may start with a bang but it goes out with no whimper. happiness (and other reasons to die) may be one of the most uplifting comedies you’ll live to see.

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The Washington Post

A gimmicky premise morphs into a suspenseful, funny play
By Celia Wren June 3

It hardly seems fair. Jeb, Misa and Emilio are dealing with a blizzard that has descended on Minnesota. They also are grappling with the meaning of life and death: They have, after all, met up for the purpose of committing suicide together. The last thing they need is a seemingly haunted record player that plays Bob Dylan.

Planning a decent demise turns out to be more than a little tricky in “happiness (and other reasons to die),” a suspenseful, dark and funny new play by local playwright Bob Bartlett. Now on view in a winningly acted production from the Welders, a collective of D.C.-based playwrights, “happiness” turns what sounds like a gimmicky premise into an absorbing chronicle of unpredictable human behavior.

Directed by Gregg Henry at the Atlas Performing Arts Center’s Lab Theatre II, the production begins with a bang — literally. Just before Jeb (Elan Zafir), Misa (Melissa Flaim) and Emilio (Carlos Saldaña) arrive at the Duluth home of Ella, with whom they have formed a four-person suicide-by-asphyxiation agreement, Ella changes her mind and shoots herself. (We hear the gunshot.) Now the remaining threesome feels obligated to tidy up her grotesquely cluttered house — Ella was a hoarder — and manage her dying dog and spooky record player.

Those tasks would be difficult enough if Jeb, Misa and Emilio were on good terms. But they met on Craigslist, and their face-to-face dealings are hamstrung by distrust, paranoia, desperate neediness and, as time marches toward New Year’s Eve, the planned date of their suicide, a little grudging affection. The complicated interpersonal dynamics sometimes give the story a thriller-like tension, which the eerie phenomena in Ella’s house only intensify. The troubled group rapport also is a source of humor. After the deathwish-fueled Nolan (Graham Pilato) appears on the scene, he drives Jeb nuts by referring to an existing “suicide club.”

“Pact, Nolan,” Jeb emphasizes testily. “It’s a pact.”

The staging puts the audience on either side of Collin Ranney’s meticulously slovenly kitchen set, complete with a stained refrigerator, rusted cabinets, piles of newspapers, containers of records and cassette tapes, and other junk. The visible outlines of all four walls — the set is basically a full room, with gaps in the vertical partitions — aptly give us a strong sense of voyeuristic spying.

Over the course of the play’s 90 intermissionless minutes, we eventually learn the causes that have driven Jeb, Misa and Emilio toward suicide. Truth to tell, the information is not entirely satisfying: The causes are too tidy and schematic. Fortunately, this dramaturgical snag doesn’t hamper the actors, who succeed in making their characters seem real, grounded and fully in the moment throughout.

Flaim demonstrates that Misa’s energetic efficiency hides a wealth of pain; Saldaña is persuasively surly and menacing as Emilio; and Zafir’s amusingly flippant and chatty Jeb shows a vulnerable side, to poignant effect. Miyuki Williams channels Misoka, a medium who may or may not be able to get in touch with Ella’s spirit.

And Pilato is both funny and alarming as the goofily unhinged Nolan. The character’s appearance represents just one of the strategies that Bartlett has used to keep his story intriguing and dynamic.

Wren is a freelance writer.

happiness (and other reasons to die)
By Bob Bartlett. Directed by Gregg Henry. Lighting design, John D. Alexander; costumes, Gail Stewart Beach; sound, Kenny Neal; properties master, Jacy Barber; technical director, Austin Byrd; dramaturg, D.W. Gregory. About 90 minutes. Tickets: $10-$20. Through June 13 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. http://www.atlasarts.org.

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Elan Zafir’s misemployment of the run-on sentence

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