Happy Endings Are Extra

Written by Ashraf Johaardien
Directed by Matt Trucano

At the Bailiwick Theater in Chicago
A review of the performance on Oct. 20, 2007

Ashraf Johaardien’s play Happy Endings Are Extra is not for the prudish. It focuses on the relationship between Gabriel, a bisexual man, and Chantelle, his understanding fiancée, who early on feigns a sophisticated detachment toward Gabriel’s sexual proclivities. But Gabriel eventually falls in love with an underage rent boy, Chris, a turn of events that shoves Gabriel and Chantelle’s complacent suburban life into a whirlpool. Gabriel’s desire for Chris and for stability with Chantelle, Chris’ insidious machinations, Chantelle’s own temptations, along with her fading hope for a happy marriage, all collectively push the couple apart and drive Gabriel to emotional collapse.

It would be easy to brush aside this play as a banal soap opera with soft-core pornography. Nevertheless, I think that reaction is too dismissive because some people, if not many, face these or similar conflicts in their own lives. The question of open relationships and the risks they bring bears directly on contemporary life for both same-sex and opposite-sex couples. The material is timely, and the characters’ attitudes are arguably genuine.

As the pivotal character of this play, Gabriel is a complex man. He seems erudite, refined, and insightful, and he possesses a vocabulary that extends beyond “incredible”, “amazing”, “awesome”, and “I’m like…”. In fact, despite his liberal use of the “f” word, he has a smooth and somewhat poetic command of the language that includes an appreciation for metaphor. It was touching to watch Gabriel interpret "Un bel dì" for Chris, in a moment that in retrospect might symbolize the inevitable heartbreak to come. Even so, Gabriel nurses some deep flaws, such as narcissism and impetuousness, that create a blind spot and misdirect his desire for intimacy away from someone who offers him commitment and stability, toward someone who is merely manipulating him as a puppeteer does a marionette.

The disturbing revelation near the play’s end lets us watch how this man who sneers a little at conventional mores, but who still has all-too-human vulnerabilities, confronts his dreadful reality and the consequences of his choices, both recent and remote. But the single greatest disappointment in this play is the fact that the author has Gabriel declare the ugly truth rather than having the characters reveal it to the audience indirectly. The return address on the envelope to Chris, which Chantelle reads aloud, would have been enough. This approach would have had a much stronger impact by demanding a deeper intellectual and emotional engagement from the audience. Indeed, one hallmark of skillful writing lies in bringing the audience to a critical epiphany without ever confirming it. Imagine how limp Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? would have been if George or Martha had simply blurted out that their son is imaginary.

Another weakness in the story is the absence of clarity on when Chris becomes aware of the secret. Some indication of this would sharpen the context for Chris’ behavior and shine more light on his motives, allowing the audience to follow whatever evolution occurs in his character and in his relationship with Gabriel.

With a few exceptional moments, the play is churlish. There’s too little respect for nuance, symbolism, or imagination, and too much reliance on shouting, sexual pantomime, and the “f” word, each of which is a cheap substitute for intelligent dialogue. Profanity is a real-world phenomenon, of course, but it can make for insulting theatre when it goes too far by stealing opportunities from the author to write more creatively, from the actor to convey more artfully, and from the audience to interpret more meaningfully.

The acting was respectable, though the players sometimes rushed and thereby created the impression that they were weary of their lines and uncomfortable with natural pauses. The cast should also consider keeping the loudness of their outbursts proportional to the space. As for the staging, the platform was triangular with its apex upstage and with a large hole in the center, restricting the actors to three narrow walkways around the sides. Although this configuration allowed for special lighting effects and created three small semi-independent stages, the resulting awkwardness was quite distracting.

In the role of Chantelle, Shannon Strodel gave her words a narrative quality -- not quite monotonic but certainly with little inflection. If Strodel’s goal, however, was to set a pedestrian tone for her character, perhaps as the emotional anchor of the trio, she succeeded. After all, Chantelle is the coolest and least erratic of the three.

In the role of Chris, the talented Adrian Gonzalez gave us a character who was winsome, sultry, harsh, and sensitive. Gonzales has the facial, vocal, and bodily wherewithal to play this character convincingly. At times, in fact, his coordination of voice and movement was as graceful as a ballet, even though there were other times when his delivery was hurried and rather staccato.

William Watt played Gabriel as a mercurial man, showing his viscerality and vagaries, while capturing the urbane and cerebral sides of his character. Along with Gonzalez, Watt brought forth the sweetest but most portentious moment in the play, which I mentioned above, when Gabriel demystified Butterfly’s aria as Chris listened with youthful curiosity and impatience. Like his two colleagues, however, Watt sometimes sprinted through his lines when a little hesitancy would have been more effective, especially as his bond with Chantelle was unraveling and the reality of his relationship to Chris was congealing.