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The sad thing about joy

In `The Pursuit of Happiness,' the quest for contentment makes its seekers unhappy even as it draws laughs.

January 08, 2007|Daryl H. Miller | Times Staff Writer

An American freedom has become a bit of a dilemma for the family in Richard Dresser's new comedy. It's "the pursuit of happiness," prominently listed in the Declaration of Independence. Sounds great, but what, exactly, does it mean?

The family clearly doesn't know the answer, because for the moment, at least, the pursuit of it is making everyone decidedly unhappy.

Being given its first-ever production at Laguna Playhouse, Dresser's "The Pursuit of Happiness" sets a funhouse mirror in front of American middle-class life and invites the audience to laugh at -- and perhaps learn from -- the view. The warps and exaggerations are revealing, and this guy really knows how to write a laugh line. But for all of that to come across, viewers need to key into Dresser's larger-than-life approach to the humor, and not everyone will be able.

The propelling event in this family's life is the only child's having arrived at that moment so many parents work so hard to prepare for: the transition from home to college. "Jodi will get to the very top and I'll be right there next to her," the mother declares in the family Christmas letter, which she is composing when the play begins.

Jodi, however, has other ideas. In her slash-and-burn school application essay, she characterizes college as indoctrination into a corrupt system, "the first sickening step of buying into a future that guarantees in 10 years you won't recognize your life." When her views are made known, a carefully spun but fragile web begins to unravel.

Dresser's play -- not to be confused with the Will Smith movie, purposely misspelled "The Pursuit of Happyness" -- is the middle installment in a trilogy about happiness in America, each set in a different social class. "Augusta," the working-class play, is already making its way into regional theaters; "A View of the Harbor," the upper-class story, is still being refined.

Dresser wrote "Pursuit" on a commission from the playhouse. The play's focus on the American zeal for winning is something it shares with "Rounding Third," his comedy about Little League-coaching dads, which the playhouse presented four years ago. Whereas "Rounding Third" remained grounded in fully recognizable reality, however, "Pursuit" is heightened -- frighteningly familiar yet a tad satiric.

The staging, directed by Andrew Barnicle, walks a fine line in trying to maintain this duality. The father, as played by Matt Reidy, is so deadened by life that he's little more than a money-earning, possession-protecting zombie. The mother, portrayed by Deedee Rescher, is, on the other hand, absolutely wired. Strong-willed and passionate, she'll do whatever it takes to achieve what she wants. The teen daughter, played by Joanna Strapp, is full to the brim with sarcasm, a half-sneer perpetually slashed across her face.

Two supporting characters are similarly larger than life: The mother's college acquaintance, now working in its admissions department, is played by Preston Maybank with alcohol-stoned diffuseness, and the father's work colleague is portrayed by Tim Cummings with slump-shouldered dejection.

To young Jodi, the pursuit of happiness is "one of those brilliant ideas that's been around too long. It means everyone works too hard and buys too much and the rest of the world hates us." She might have a point, but will you, oh-so-capitalist America, buy it?


`The Pursuit of Happiness'

Where: Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, also 2 p.m. Jan. 18 and 7 p.m. Jan. 28

Ends: Feb. 4

Price: $30 to $65

Contact: (949) 497-2787 or

Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes

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