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Truth meets satire in The Pursuit of Happiness
By CAROLYN CLAY  |  October 15, 2007

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HAMSTERS ON THE WHEEL: Just what is it we’re pursuing?

Overachieving Maine teen Jodi has a bone to pick with the Founding Fathers. She’s okay with life and liberty, but the pursuit of happiness? The young heroine of Richard Dresser’s The Pursuit of Happiness (at Merrimack Repertory Theatre through October 28) sees the title right as a conspiracy to keep us hamsters on the wheel — and she says so, in a college-application essay that she fails to mail in, along with the rest of the form, because she doesn’t want to go to college. She sees that as “the first sickening step of buying into a future that guarantees in 10 years you won’t recognize your life.” This stresses and distresses the only child’s parents, who have sacrificed to give her every advantage and lived vicariously through her achievements. As mom Annie synopsizes in the annual Christmas letter to family and friends, “Brag, brag. Vomit, vomit.” But she can’t help herself.

MRT artistic director Charles Towers is a big fan of Dresser — this is the fifth of the playwright’s spare comedies that MRT has produced. That includes Augusta, the first of a Maine-set trilogy examining contentment and class in America, to which The Pursuit of Happiness is a follow-up. Augusta, the working-class installment, focuses on two cleaning ladies pitted against each other by a middle manager. The Pursuit of Happiness takes its exploration of all-American bliss and corruption to the upper middle class, with Jodi’s rebellion causing her parents to question disappointed lives spent in quest of lucre and a gold-plated future for their kid. This isn’t mere sociology — the play is a razor-sharp comedy of manners that also has a point. More than one point, actually: the race to get into a top college has become a sort of sickness, as has the pursuit of material success in America and the demanding investment of parents in their children.

In some of Dresser’s previous outings, the dialogue was honed and amusing but the underlying premises seemed arbitrary. Here both Jodi’s stand and her parents’ reactions ring absolutely true — even if out of them hilariously extreme and exaggerated things ensue. Moreover, under Towers’s direction, a very crisp MRT cast maintain the play’s satiric tone without sacrificing the vulnerability of their unstrung characters.

That The Pursuit of Happiness is not a realistic work is conveyed from the get-go in Pavel Dobrusky’s set and lighting design. The play unfolds on a carpeted, multi-level structure that looks a little like a kitty condominium but also suggests the ladder of success with a lighted tower at the summit. The rudimentarily furnished surrounds are often bathed in turquoise, and the minimal props are handed in from the wings. Amid this abstraction, desperate householders Annie, dad Neil, and Jodi, along with a couple of even more desperate interlopers, try to find a foothold.

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