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A CurtainUp Review
The Happiness Lecture

If you think you may be watching performance art, you probably are. .—Lee Ann Etzold
Bill Irwin, artist and personality of clown fame, not to mention MacArthur Fellowship, Broadway, Off-Broadway, TV, Tony, Albee and Trumbo fame among other fames, has developed a new work, The Happiness Lecture. One of many World Premieres in Philadelphia this season, it was commissioned by the Philadelphia Theatre Company (PTC), and it wraps up their first year in the new Suzanne Roberts Theatre.

A meta-theatrical stealth opener, slyly and unaffectedly delivered by Lee Ann Etzold, introduces the piece. The whole thing is a kind of dance, with near-vaudeville moments, storytelling, and hints of old movies with flashes of Harold Lloyd, Keaton, even a touch of Groucho. Bill Irwin, the gifted physical comedian, who seems to be made of rubber bands that might stretch or contract at any moment, teases around the edges of ideas.

What is this play, The Happiness Lecture? Depends on what you mean by "lecture" or "play." This is a collection of open-ended, humorous, partially connected pieces that more or less convey meaning in a non-linear and non-literal way as shown in a dream. Although not too overtly cerebral, the work has unexpected complexity as Irwin and the ensemble explore ideas through multiple avenues of recurring themes, movement, gesture, and media. However, for all its physicality and close timing, it comes across as a bit philosophically loosey-goosey in its attempt to cover a whole lot while appearing to cover nothing. It would be so satisfying if it meant to nail something, anything, and fall into place.

In the best moments, skillfully played elements coordinate with crackerjack timing and The Happiness Lecture delivers the goods. For example, Irwin, dancing on stage, is synchronized with Irwin shown dancing on a video monitor, and things slide out of control in a most engaging and surprising way.

Steamer trunks and red curtained prosceniums of various sizes are used in witty ways. However, when the tomfoolery wanders outside the large proscenium arch and into the auditorium, the audience encounters one of the show's weakest links. Off-stage intervals involve a hapless late arriving audience member, beautifully and cluelessly played by Makato Hirano. These bits, set up to at least initially appear real, could have been truly humorous had usher-actors toned it way down. The choice to play ushers as stagey stereotypes, too-too over the top, spoils the joke.

The eight performers working with Irwin wear Asian inspired, black costumes to render them "invisible". These invisible union people run things. They move properties, push Irwin around, and sometimes tie together recurring elements.

Expectations that have been carefully set up are deftly thwarted by false starts. There's an overly long stop-and-start retelling of a story told by John Lanchester (The Debt to Pleasure, 1996) in a New Yorker book review, "Pursuing Happiness." It's about the divided mind, survival of the species, and two prehistoric men, Ig and Og. If there is in fact a message in The Happiness Lecture, it could be tied to this centerpiece, and it may be related to the tragedy of a staged killing spree and subsequent distancing denials. Hard to say.

With the stacking of routines, meaning doesn't so much accumulate as hang unresolved. While audience members are not exactly active agents in the performance, they are included and there seems to be an expectation that they will connect the dots. But for that to happen there would have to be a consistent underlying big picture or maybe a destination. But, by design, the dots are unconnectible and nothing is consistent, including the main character. Bill says, "Every human being is like a committee in session at all times."

What this is, is a novelty act. First and foremost it's an occasion to showcase Irwin's many talents. Second, to incorporate the others' supporting skills. The ensemble works with precision and unpredictability. Some can really move, and some can manipulate puppets. The handling of two tiny realistic Bill Irwin puppets is masterful.

Cast members receive short solo moments and briefly show their faces. The ensemble bears scrutiny: Ephrat Asherie is a New York-based dancer recognized by Dance Magazine as "One to Watch in 2007". Nicole Canuso is a prominent Philadelphia dancer. Jennifer Childs is Artistic Director of 1812 Productions, a Philadelphia all-comedy company. Melanie Cotton is a member of the respected Rennie Harris Puremovement Repertory. Aaron Cromie is a talented Philadelphia puppeteer, actor, director, and choreographer. Lee Ann Etzold is a founding member of New Paradise Laboratories. Makoto Hirano, who is featured, is a Philadelphia dancer and founder of the performance ensemble, OMNiBUS. Cori Olinghouse is a New York-based dancer with the Trisha Brown Dance Company. I hope this brief nod gives some idea of the caliber of this mostly Philadelphia-based cast. And among the fine designers, local whiz kid Jorge Cousineau handles video and sound.

Maybe it's the choice of title that sets up the idea that this work will add up. It may lead people to anticipate a feel-good piece, one of those shows where you walk out with a temporary, theatre-induced glow about humanity. This is not like that. It's not heartwarming so much as admirable. Seemingly unfinished, it admits interpretations but confirms nothing. The Happiness Lecture is an ambiguous tour de force, funny and vaguely unsettling.

The Happiness Lecture
Created and directedby Bill Irwin
Cast: Bill Irwin, Ephrat Asherie, Nicole Canuso, Jennifer Childs, Melanie Cotton, Aaron Cromie, Lee Ann Etzold, Makoto Hirano, Cori Olinghouse
Set Design: Kelly Hanson
Lighting Design: Nancy Schertler
Sound & Video Design: Jorge Cousineau
Original Arrangements: John Forster
Costume Design: Rebecca Lustig
Puppet design: Roman Paska/ Puppet coordinator: Martin Robinson
05/16/08- 06/22/08, Opening 05/21/08
Approx 80 minutes, no intermission
Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on 05/25 performance
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