We've entered that time of the year when those of us who bitch about plastic sentiment and sequin-sewn optimism during the other 11 months now complain that there isn't enough of it--or rather, that the treacle we're being served lacks variety. What's up with us? Even when somebody does try something alternative--Kitchen Dog's current adept but bloodless dose of Dickens, Act of Passion--we complain that such a reactionary show goes so far in the opposite direction of "good will toward men" that it winds up unfurling that phrase like the banner-sized electronic super-titles at Dallas Opera.
I can only blame the slightly silly November-December pressure to experience fellowship and dispense generosity for my persnickety attitudes toward holiday theater. A classroom is the place to be lectured, the church a decent weekly exercise in reminding us to be kind to one another (even the hell-bound); the theater exists to help us explore while entertaining us in the bargain. There is a kind of joy when these things happen, but not of the stripe with which Yuletide advertisers woo us. I consider myself quite fond of laughter, but it doesn't arise spontaneously at gunpoint: The holiday stage has held me hostage too many times to not be wary.
Theatre Three has over the years soothed my troubled brow by staging feel-good fare with little or no direct connection to the Christmas-Hanukkah-Kwanzaa crisis. Whether it be The Miser or The Fantasticks, they produce shows with affirmative little life lessons that don't explicitly bear that seasonal consumer seal of approval. Maybe that's what allows me to relax and enjoy much of what they stage around this time; it's usually not full of characters marked by the calendar for redemption. Indeed, I became engrossed enough in their current production of the rarely revived comedy The Happy Time that I forgot it was gift-giving time, and after the actors took their final bows and I walked out to my car, I remembered I needed to hit the mall. A play about family solidarity and first romance and, to quote two of the performers, "truth and love," had (for the most part) enchanted me during a month when I take daily injections of snide cynicism (The Onion, David Sedaris, etc.) to stay alert. Theatre Three had seemingly warmed my heart by stealth. The fact that I cringed as I entered the theater beneath a marquee labeled The Happy Time makes this something of a feat.
The Happy Time
Theatre Three, 2800 Routh St. in the Quadrangle
Through January 7 (214) 871-3300
Playwright and screenwriter Samuel Taylor died just six months ago at the age of 87; it is through the medium of film that his memory has been secured. He adapted his Broadway romantic comedy Sabrina Faire into one of Audrey Hepburn's early film successes and was hired by Alfred Hitchcock to overhaul the first draft of Vertigo; its final serpentine plot pace and secret identity revealed three-quarters of the way through are by Taylor's hand. He was interested in pure, frolicsome escape when The Happy Time enjoyed a long New York run in 1950, although audiences looking for an I Remember Mama-type family reverie might have been scandalized by a garter-collecting, womanizing uncle; a child invited to drink wine and eat cognac-filled candy; and a vaguely described "dirty picture" copied from a girly magazine and attributed to the same preadolescent. While there's nothing in here to truly shock us now, the play's implicit endorsement of seduction as sport and male camaraderie as a proud form of separatism certainly chafes against today's puritan tendencies from the right and the left.
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Across Harland Wright's serenely handsome set, distributed with the nicked and faded glamour of pretty, if cheap, antiques, unfolds the exploits of the defiantly French Bonnard men in the early 1920s. Vaudeville violinist Jacques (Gray Palmer) is the household head and rather indulgent role model to young son Bibi (Andrew Hughey). He is equally lenient to the excesses of his womanizing father (Peter Ray), his alcoholic older brother Louis (Kyle McClaran), and serial seducer/traveling wine salesman Desmonde (Jeff Schmidt), his baby frère. The way Jacques' unconditional love forgives all kinds of excesses drives his Scottish wife, Susan, (Rebecca Graham) into fits of impatient concern, especially over how the adult men will influence her dear, impressionable Bibi. A lovely blond stage acrobat named Mignonette (Kelly Grandjean) is taken into the fold after she refuses a promoter's advances, and bewitches both Bibi and Desmonde. Nightgowns are stolen, frilly garters are tossed about, a dilemma at Bibi's school brings the Bonnard men together into a united front, and everyone finishes by getting what they want.
A lot of lunatic business transpires in The Happy Time, and director Jac Alder had not tightened all of it by the Sunday performance I attended, a preview at which the audience was clearly warned that the actors were gearing up for the official run. But he has cast several performers who swing before us on giddy trapezes of characterization. Gray Palmer as the boundlessly proud papa exudes real affection for his flawed fold; Jeff Schmidt continues his development into one of the city's preeminent stage charmers as rakish Desmonde, whose mock impersonation of Rudolph Valentino is one of the show's highlights; and platinum-curled Kelly Grandjean, a relative newcomer, is dovish and vulnerable and witty in the manner of some bona fide French film comedienne of the 1940s. Dallas stage veteran Kyle McClaran is a big fellow with a very big, theatrical voice; you sometimes wonder if he has swallowed a bullhorn. He doesn't have to do much to dominate a stage, and at times here as sodden Louis, his clowning crosses over into the gargantuan. He must be careful to dole out his gifts more sparingly.
Speaking of McClaran, where The Happy Time perhaps feels most dated (even so, in a curious and novel rather than threadbare way) is in its treatment of alcoholism. Uncle Louis is staggering, stammering drunk through 90 percent of this play. At one point, when Louis tearfully laments his zero accomplishments as a man, brother Jacques, scrambling to find some shred of individuality, states, "How many men can say they drink wine out of a watercooler?" (McClaran carries one onstage by the handle like a kid pulling a red wagon behind him). At a couple points, Rebecca Graham as Susan walks by Louis as he is unconscious on the couch, smiles warmly, shakes her head, and moves on. He's the embodiment of that nowadays seldom-repeated gem "God watches over drunks and small children," mostly because he's an alkie and a big, hairy, huggable toddler. You'd have to be some kind of 12-step Nazi to get too riled up over this--or maybe just someone who lost a loved one to the bottle--but after being pounded with so much addiction education through the media over the past 20 years, it's difficult to cheer Louis' dipsomania along with the rest of the Bonnards. We now know he'll blow his liver out in a year.
But this imposition of cultural awareness across decades isn't really fair, and one of the things that makes The Happy Time so watchable is the foreign self-containment of its attitudes about sex and relationships and honor and the meaning of the word "truth." I'd be curious to know how comfortable theatergoing parents might be taking teenagers (especially boys) to this innocently bawdy tract about the privileges and responsibilities that come with manhood. Its messages can no longer be unconditionally embraced by a wide spectrum of the public. In any case, Jac Alder has not revived a masterpiece, but he has discovered a bauble ornately eccentric in its design at the bottom of the American theater junk drawer. Several gifted performers have a helluva time tossing it back and forth among themselves as the stage lights catch unexpected sides and angles that sparkle.