The Happy Couple

This Last Act Theatre show depicts a couple's nice life unraveling with equal parts tension and release

Whose nice life is it, anyway?: Derek Vandi's Billy breaks up a not-so-happy moment between Lindsay McKenna's Angel and Suzanne Balling's Mary Elizabeth.
Whose nice life is it, anyway?: Derek Vandi's Billy breaks up a not-so-happy moment between Lindsay McKenna's Angel and Suzanne Balling's Mary Elizabeth.
Photo courtesy of Jim Mckay photography

The Happy Couple

The White House Ranch, 3410 E. Pennsylvania, 512/865-9484
Through May 25
Running time: 1 hr., 50 min.

Mary Elizabeth's life was planned before she was born. She was supposed to be a good girl and get good grades so she could go to a good college, where she would study communications and graduate with an MRS degree. She would get married to a nice boy bound for law school and then stay at home to make a nice life in the nice suburbs for her nice husband and, eventually, a few nice kids.

And that's exactly what Mary Elizabeth did. But in Texas playwright James Venhaus' The Happy Couple, all it takes to unravel this good, nice life is one night unwittingly spent with a couple of squatters.

Appropriately staged in the ramshackle Eastside art-space White House Ranch, Last Act Theatre's clear production (the Austin premiere) feels just right: peeling wallpaper, a Dumpster couch, dim lighting, and little or no air conditioning. The unlawful inhabitants, Eddie (Rob Novak), Angel (Lindsay McKenna), and Billy (Derek Vandi), look right, too, with baggy clothes and combat boots and cheap beer and a little glass pipe. They're about to toke up when Mary Elizabeth (Suzanne Balling) and Michael (Scot Friedman) waltz through the door to visit the house they shared before tying the knot, a wife's 10th anniversary surprise for her unenthusiastic husband.

Balling brings her signature buoyancy to the role, yoking the audience's empathy to Mary Elizabeth as she transforms from a hopeful housewife to an utterly devastated shell of a woman. Often funny and always clever, Balling meets her match in McKenna, whose tough exterior and even tougher interior make mincemeat of the other characters' feelings. As fellow "urban homesteaders," Novak and Vandi balance McKenna's aggression; the former has an uncanny ability to cool the room down in heightened moments, and the latter brings childlike trust and slowness to his role. Add Friedman's hopelessly shallow character to the mix, and you have a perfect storm of strong personalities that teeters on the edge of catastrophe.

Venhaus' accordionlike script has us holding our breath and clenching our knuckles one moment, then sighing into laughter the next. Just as Angel seems about to rob the titular couple blind, for example, Michael wanders in with Eddie telling him about the rock & roll fantasy team-building camp he once did with the guys at the firm. With smooth direction from Last Act Artistic Director Karen Alvarado, the tension and release of these moments feels natural and cathartic. And Mary Elizabeth's final reckoning – a confrontation of what it means to be successful, or good, or happy – weighs heavily on the audience, because we don't know what those things mean, either.

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