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Theatre Reviews All Our Happy Days Are Stupid: Remount of Sheila Heti play has more polish, less personality

The cast of the Sheila Heti’s All Our Happy Days Are Stupid.

3 out of 4 stars

Written by
Sheila Heti
Directed by
Jordan Tannahill
Actors
Naomi Skwarna, Becky Johnson
Venue
Harbourfront Centre Theatre
City
Toronto
Runs Until
Saturday, February 14, 2015

Escaping to the theatre is like leaving on vacation – you can't really go without bringing baggage along with you, even if it's just your expectations.

The story behind Sheila Heti's All Our Happy Days Are Stupid is a really good one. Most audience members who voyage to see the play in its latest New York-bound incarnation are going to carry along this story in their back pocket, like a guide book, in order to appreciate what they're looking at.

That story, until now, has roughly followed a traditional three-act structure.

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Act I: Back in 2001, Heti, fresh off the publication of her first story collection, was commissioned by Nightwood Theatre to write a play. It went through what is known as "development hell" – and, five years later, Heti abandoned the script, defeated.

Act II: In 2010, Heti released a book called How Should a Person Be? that, in part, relates a Sheila's struggle to write a play. It became a critical success – and, especially after it is published in the United States, interest was revived in Heti's actual play.

Act III: Jordan Tannahill and his company Suburban Beast entered to rescue what Heti describes in How Should a Person Be? as "my embarrassing, impossible play." He stages a backyard reading of the play with friends – actors, writers, comedians, musicians – and then transferred that loose atmosphere into a charming but low-risk 2013 production in a tiny art gallery. It was a hit.

This is where we find ourselves in the story now: All Our Happy Days Are Stupid is being remounted in a bigger production at World Stage in Toronto – and then touring down to The Kitchen off-Broadway starting next week. The New York Times has taken notice and gave the show prime real estate in its Sunday arts section.

Now there are expectations. Now there is risk.

This feeds into the story within All Our Happy Days Are Stupid, which is about expectations – and about whether risks are ever worth taking.

The Oddis and the Sings – two families from the same North American town – run into one another while on unhappy vacations in Paris.

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The Oddis are disappointed because Paris is not how they had imagined it – the city is overrun with parades and no one is speaking French. The Sings have a more serious problem – their son Daniel has disappeared into one of these parades and cannot be found.

This tragedy – presented as more of a mishap – causes a shift in the two mothers. Ms. Oddi (Naomi Skwarna, a cutting cut-out) revives an interest in the flute, then embraces her hardly hidden selfishness by abandoning her husband (a very funny, deadpan Alexander Carson) and daughter (Lorna Wright) for Cannes.

Mrs. Sing (Becky Johnson) follows in hot pursuit – having spurned Ms. Oddi in the early scenes, she now is obsessed with becoming her friend. "You're not a guest; you're an intruder," Ms. Oddi tells her. This might be Pinter territory were Ms. Oddi not canoodling with a French man in a bear suit while she says it. Heti's comedy is offbeat – and there's rarely real investment underneath it, at least in this production. The play hovers around the two mothers, but often wanders away and gets lost in the parade like Daniel – shifting into a fairy tale in the first act and a long monologue by an old man (the hilarious Kayla Lorette) in the second.

As with its previous incarnation, Heti's play is frequently delightful. But Tannahill and the performers are taking everything more seriously.

There's a trade-off here. The general standard of performance from the ragtag group of performers is more uniformly polished, but I missed seeing the personalities of the performers behind the characters (with the exception of the fascinatingly bizarre Jon McCurley). Is it an irretrievable loss to the aesthetic to no longer see Carl Wilson, a former editor at The Globe and Mail and now Slate's music critic, playing a tree? Now there are giant storybook trees designed by Rae Powell (responsible for the whole, two-dimensional, black-and-white set).

The meta-narrative surrounding All Our Happy Days Are Stupid is what made the production work – and it's tamped down this time around. But the story behind the story cannot be forgotten. The only thing that's really impossible is complete escape – whether at the theatre or on vacation.

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After its Toronto run, All Our Happy Days Are Stupid moves to New York for a Feb. 19-28 off-Broadway run at The Kitchen (thekitchen.org).

Follow me on Twitter: @nestruck

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