Sometimes nothing much happens in a play, or at least nothing surprising, but the journey its characters take feels so authentic, so palpably representative of the human condition, that audiences are likely to cherish the passing minutes.
Such is the case in Magic Theatre’s Bay Area premiere of Los Angeles playwright Julie Marie Myatt’s 2009 play “The Happy Ones.”
Early in the two-act drama an unspeakable tragedy occurs, and just like that the sunny world of amiable, middle-aged Walter, owner of a small appliance store in Orange County, is forever altered. It is 1975, and the Vietnam War has just ended.
Walter spends the rest of the play slowly and reluctantly learning how to readjust.
His best friend, an amusingly incompetent Unitarian minister, tries to help. So does the minister’s ditsy girlfriend. Both are eager, but both just instinctively do all the wrong things.
There is no right thing, however. Walter cannot be jollied out of his misery. There’s only one person who understands that: a quiet, suicidal Vietnamese refugee who has experienced horrors of his own.
The play begins with a flurry of too many busy set changes, and initially Liam Craig as Walter appears oddly fidgety and unfocused.
But when the story and stage business settle down and become streamlined, so does Craig, effectively inhabiting the life of a man facing an unimaginable future.
Director Jonathan Moscone nudges the comic elements to just the right level to balance, and offset, Walter’s remote and silent suffering — and Moscone and Craig know how to internalize that grief, never sentimentalizing it.
Gabriel Marin, as the bumbling minister, is hilarious: a terminally insecure man of God who doesn’t know what he believes, or how to help anyone, and goes through life with a permanently perplexed look on his face.
And Marcia Pizzo, as the sexy, alcoholic divorcee, crafts a character who is convincingly, and comically, shallow and insensitive yet compassionate — and also desperately needy.
Jomar Tagatac is also excellent as the Vietnamese refugee, a doctor in his homeland now working in a bakery. Tagatac’s polite, fixed smile, stiffly formal bearing and sad eyes are deeply affecting.
Myatt’s writing is light and delicate in her exploration of grief and of the mysterious power of human connections to offer a flicker of hope.
And the Magic production, on Erik Flatmo’s realistically bland suburban-living-room set, is tonally just right.
The Happy Ones: Presented by Magic Theatre
- Where: Building D, Fort Mason, Marina Boulevard and Buchanan Street, S.F.
- When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays; closes April 21
- Tickets: $22-$62
- Contact: (415) 441-8822, www.magictheatre.org