It says something about the ubiquitousness of video today that the cutout Eiffel Tower that dominates Toronto-based Suburban Beast’s production of Sheila Heti’s All Our Happy Days Are Stupid feels unbearably twee – but kind of cool that way. For a story that ranges between iconic locales (Paris and Cannes) that would easily lend themselves to a lush video backdrop, the production is heavy on design, but of the analogue kind only, adopting a deliberately cartoonish style that comes off a bit precious and totally retro.
Yet, it’s an able match for Heti’s famously “unstageable” play (10 years in the making and the subject of her bestselling novel, How Should a Person Be?), which knowingly invokes scores of cliches and worn-out tropes: there’s a midlife crisis, a lost child, churlish French waiters, a leather-jacketed rocker, a coming-of-age story, even a Prince for All Seasons and his lovely Young Bride. The one-dimensionality of the plot and characters is exponentially exaggerated by a design triple-whammy: Jordan Tannahill’s diagrammatic direction, which sharply delineates characters with a limited gestural vocabulary, Juliann Wilding’s black and white costumes (including whigs and nail polish) and Rae Powell’s cartoonish set, which looks like it was lifted from a children’s picture book (Ludwig Bemelmans‘ Madeline series is a strong candidate).
The plot seems at first to revolve around 12-year old Jenny discovering Paris for the first time with her parents, until it veers to the runaway Daniel, a schoolmate coincidentally also on vacation there, and the children’s unhappy mothers, Ms. Oddi and Mrs. Sing. Heti’s writing has a habit of sneaking revelatory anecdotes and disarmingly simple metaphors into a microsecond of dialogue, and these narrative cul de sacs and non sequiturs – along with some totally random characters with names like the Man in The Bear Suit and the Hobbled Man – add both grit and fantasy to the show’s slick stylization. A breakfast conversation between Mr. and Ms. Oddi can jump from Jenny’s adolescent moods to families that “smell bad” to poetry to family finances and sex (in the same breath) to Ms. Oddi’s memory of “a little Japanese boy who did everything backwards.” Combined with a taut female power struggle between yin-yang opposites Ms. Oddi and Mrs. Sing, you wouldn’t be surprised to find Gertrude Stein lurking under that cutout hotel bed.
With so much visual stimulation and Tannahill’s thick direction, the acting seems an afterthought and the uneven ensemble of secondary interest, except for Kayla Lorette’s comic diversion as both the Waiter and the Hobbled Man. The characters’ facile binarism (the white-clothed, obvious Oddi’s versus the black-draped, mysterious Sing family) gives them the depth of paper dolls. Yet Heti’s concerns are not so shallow and her offhand title says much about both the show’s theme – the search for happiness and its inevitable disappointments – and the author’s alternately naif and wizened approach to it. The show’s troubadour of sorts, Henri Fabergé as an older Daniel performing Dan Bejar’s moody pop compositions at the scene changes, encapsulates the show’s tug-of-war between innocence and irony.
All Our Happy Days Are Stupid can be cloying but it’s of a deliberate kind that begs deconstruction. Its merits lie in Heti’s narrative iceberg, where what can be spied at surface level can cover untapped emotional reserves, and the way in which the storybook aesthetic allows us to create our own pictures and meanings for her gnomic language. The apparent whimsicality of the production belies a rather cruel outlook on the world, not unlike a Brothers Grimm fairytale, as a series of struggles to define the self against numerous adversaries. But to quote Mrs Sing toward play’s end, “There is no better life.” When all is said and done in Heti’s oddly charming world, the plywood Eiffel Tower may be only that: just a poor copy of a giant romantic illusion.