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
www.lastacttheater.com
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.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More Austin theatre
Valoneecia Tolbert Geeks Out in <i>Tales of a Blerd Ballerina</i>
Valoneecia Tolbert Geeks Out in Tales of a Blerd Ballerina
The actress looks back at what it was to be young, geeky, and Black

Robert Faires, April 9, 2021

Examining the Sins and Virtues of Hypermasculine Theatre
Examining the Sins and Virtues of Hypermasculine Theatre
When is violence in theatre too much?

Shanon Weaver, Dec. 9, 2016

More Arts Reviews
Biography of Spooky Rocker Roky Erickson Gets Inside the Myth and Madness
Biography of Spooky Rocker Roky Erickson Gets Inside the Myth and Madness
New oral history explores the head and mysteries of Austin's psych pioneer

Raoul Hernandez, Dec. 3, 2021

Review: Hyde Park Theatre's <i>My Season With the Astros, Expos, and Phillies</i>
Review: Hyde Park Theatre's My Season With the Astros, Expos, and Phillies
One man’s sports obsession becomes a charming one-act exploration into mediocrity

Bob Abelman, Nov. 19, 2021

More by Jillian Owens
Exhibitionism
One Night With Janis Joplin
Zach makes this soulful portrait of the blues-rock queen an exhilarating concert that'll have you on your feet

Aug. 2, 2013

Exhibitionism
Little Shop of Horrors
This year's Zilker Summer Musical swaps the Swiss Alps for Skid Row, but it's as hugely entertaining as ever

July 26, 2013

KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

The Happy Couple, Austin theatre, James Venhaus, Last Act Theatre, Karen Alvarado, Suzanne Balling, Scot Friedman, Lindsay McKenna, Derek Vandi, Rob Novak

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle