HAPPY END is schizophrenic--an anomalous lark. The biting, sardonic music of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht don't fit the sitcom plot. The play's as far from Brecht & Weill's Three penny Opera as a Keystone Kops film is from Little Caesar. Both plays recount the daring misdeeds and romantic entanglements of a gangster, but Threepenny Opera's sordid outlaws become Happy End's petty, bumbling bullies. Despite a denunciation of capitalism tacked on at the end, Happy End is insubstantial fluff, a romantic comedy expertly staged and acted by the American Repertory Theatre Company.
The play tells of a Salvation Army lieutenant's wooing of a hardened but unhappy gangster. Their love causes Bill Cracker to fall afoul of the gang's sinister leader, the Fly, and results in Sister Lillian's expulsion in disgrace from the Army. Through a series of predictable and improbable coincidences, all are reunited and forgiven, and the two camps join hands to form an army of the poor to fight the "real enemy"--capitalism.
Director Walton Jones milks every bit of humor from Michael Feingold's adaptation of the clever, pat script. He mocks the cliched plot, deliberately parodying the stylized, silent-movie romance/thriller. Curlicued subtitles announce songs and significant moments; when the gang rob the bank, the lights flash on and off, simulating the flickering early movies. A few touches are a bit cloying--the Fly as telephone operator, for example--but Happy End contains many slyly comic moments. Jones mounts a polished production; the actors sustain a rapid pace that admirably suits his comic intent. Uniformly excellent acting ensures the play's success, as the company dutifully trots through Jones' paces. The Fly's gang provide frequent comic relief; Jeremy Geidt as Manny and John Bottoms as the sinister Governor especially stand out. Geidt's impish sweet-talking and the Governor's calm imperturbability enliven a slightly sluggish first act. Kenneth Ryan plays Bill Cracker as a sulky, rughtless lump; he provides a good foil to the more aggressive and articulate Hallelujah Lil. The gang's rather indifferent voices, however, fail to do justice to Weill's music.
With the entrance of the two leading women, Happy End takes off. Elizabeth Norment makes a sultry autocrat, ever-cool and competent. Although she has to strain her voice a bit to carry off "the Ballad of the Lily of Hell," she infuses the number with an energy and viciousness that recalls--for a moment--Threepenny Opera's brilliant evocation of evil.
It is Marilyn Casey's performance as Hallelujah Lil, however, that rescues Happy End from triteness. Casey provides one of the few bits of effective social commentary with her jabs at the hypocrisy of the Army hierarchy. Her sure, colorful voice invests the Weill/Brecht songs with an emotional depth that shames the plot's cliches. Casey uses the songs to suggest contradictions in Lil's character that the script brushes over. In the biting "Sailor's Tango"--sung to convert Bill-the evangelist smolders with sexual invitation. She turns the haunting denunciation of love into its tender yet rueful opposite--a declaration of her feelings for Bill in "Surabaya Johnny'."
THESE FEW MOMENTS of stage magic point up the emotional barreness of the script. The songs--cynical, angry, haunting--exist in a vacuum, unsupported by any undercurrents in the production. Technically faultless as Jones' staging is, his deft exploitation of Happy End's humor exaggerates the banality of the plot.
While Happy End is not--and should not necessarily be--a Threepenny Opera, Brecht and Weill's songs suggest that Happy End could have another face. The gang's pettiness and cowardice, the naivete and condescension of the Salvation Army sermons, Bill's amorality, Lil's sexuality--these elements of Feingold's adaptation should have been emphasized in the production. The Brecht and Weill characters, as revealed in their songs, are not the cute bumblers of Jones' production. The two paint a much crueler, darker world, a world in which the little guys squander their energies fighting each other instead of their common exploiter. The ending is farcical in this production; Jones' interpretation sacrifices nuance and social commentary for humor. Happy End is amusing, enjoyable, expertly presented--but too slick.