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Taking ‘Happy’ to heart

Robert Caisley, who wrote “Happy,” serves as head of the dramatic writing program at the University of Idaho.
Robert Caisley, who wrote “Happy,” serves as head of the dramatic writing program at the University of Idaho.

Idaho Rep presents staged reading of comedy that questions contentedness

Playwright Robert Caisley recalls participating in a playwrights’ workshop at London’s Royal Court Theater led by Harold Pinter, and one of the students asked whether Pinter’s new play, which had just premiered on the West End, was a comedy or a drama.

“All my plays are comedies,” Pinter responded, “until they stop being comedies.”

Caisley remembered that line when he sat down to write his play “Happy,” a dark comedy about a contented man who’s forced to confront the possibility that his personal happiness is either a façade or a coping mechanism. Tonight, Idaho Repertory Theatre at the University of Idaho, where Caisley serves as head of the dramatic writing program, will host a staged reading of the play, and it’s the first time it has been performed in any capacity in Idaho.

“Happy” concerns a middle-age man named Alfred, who, by his own account, is extraordinarily happy. He’s invited to dinner at his artist friend Eduardo’s house, where he meets Ava, the pessimistic 22-year-old Eduardo happens to be dating. She doesn’t share Alfred’s optimism for life and begins poking holes in his sunny worldview – happiness is a charade, she says, and Alfred starts to wonder if she’s got a point.

“Over the course of the evening, she dismantles (Alfred’s) life,” Caisely said, “and he comes to question everything in his life that he thought he was happy about. And perhaps he’s not as happy as he’s been fooling himself into believing.”

It’s your typical drawing room comedy, until it stops being a comedy.

“The classic tragic flaw of most characters in the Western canon is something that’s generally described as a negative quality,” Caisley said. “So I thought to myself, ‘I wonder if it’s possible to write a play where the central protagonist is consumed by something, a flaw, that’s generally regarded as a positive attribute.’ Maybe happiness is their Achilles’ heel.”

The play has been performed all over the country and was even reviewed in the New York Times, which compared the show to the work of playwright and filmmaker Neil LaBute (“In the Company of Men,” “The Shape of Things”). Caisley has seen “Happy” performed by several different casts and with various directors at the helm, but this is the first time since it was completed that it’s been presented as a reading – no costumes, no set, just the words.

“It’s so interesting how people take the play,” Caisley said, recalling a particular Q-and-A session in which one audience member seemingly saw the play as an affront to his own contentedness. “Many people are completely enthralled by the idea of the delusion of happiness, and other people are really offended by it.

“But the real thrill of the play is meeting this woman, Ava, who doesn’t believe in the concept of happiness,” he added. “While her methods are rather draconian, I think Ava is honest, and some people, I think, don’t want to deal with that kind of radical honesty.”