The Pursuit of Happiness is an unsatisfyingchase. That summarizes both the long-winded message of the comedy that world-premieres this month at Laguna Playhouse and its ultimate shortcoming. After taking an upper-middle-class American family on a ruthless rampage through its shallow values, playwright Richard Dresser leaves everybody on the back porch of the really nice house they've realized isn't really all that important, sipping hot soup from a heartwarming crock.
Don't get this play confused with the current feature film starring Will Smith. Or that classic TV sitcom starring Jerry Mathers. The Pursuit of Happiness is the second play in a trilogy that Dresser has written about happiness in America, with each play set in a different social class. It's kind of a cool project.
Unfortunately, Dresser doesn't seem to have thought any harder about happiness than they did on Happy Days. He's just more hateful about it, taking a pretty standard parental motivation—getting a daughter into college in the blind belief that it will ensure she has a good life—and massacring them for it. He gives us an ex-hippie dad (the inscrutable Matthew Reidy) who has worked himself brain-dead, and a formerly free-love mom (DeeDee Rescher, in a Lucille-Ball-on-Red-Bull performance) who's willing to whore herself out to a college admissions officer (Preston Maybank, somehow simultaneously sleazy, sweet and hilarious). The daughter (Joanna Strapp in a competent professional debut) is evolved enough to resist this cookie-cutter life, but not to keep from being a total bitch.
If Dresser had just let fly on this family, things probably would have been fine. He invents some great comic moments from some truly inane situations. But Dresser wants to teach us something, and so he periodically reins in the crazies and tries to make us relate to them, kind of like if The Simpsons kept morphing into King of the Hill. Dresser wants us to see the folly in pursuing happiness through money and things, to realize that doing it any way but our way just guarantees we will fall short of our dreams.
The problem is, he has drawn his characters so broadly, stripped them of so much pride, decency, love or even common sense that it's hard to imagine they ever had any dreams to fall short of in the first place.
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THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS AT THE LAGUNA PLAYHOUSE, 606 LAGUNA CANYON RD., LAGUNA BEACH, (714) 497-2787; WWW.LAGUNAPLAYHOUSE.COM; TUES.-SAT., 8 P.M.; SAT.-SUN., 2 P.M. THROUGH FEB. 4. $20-$65.