A through line in Sheila Heti’s dazzling, eccentric, and unusually rewarding How Should a Person Be? is a competition between two artists to see who can create the ugliest painting. They struggle with this, of course, not because they can’t make something that is unattractive (anyone can do that), but because it turns out that capturing true ugliness is every bit as difficult as crafting true beauty. And, anyway, what is “ugly”? What are the rules that govern such aesthetic interpretations?
How do we know which rules to follow, anyway?
Really, How Should a Person Be is about the presence/absence of those kinds of boundaries: the rules that impose meaning on our restless, chaotic lives. At every turn, characters mull the apparent conventions, but also the frustrating absence of guidelines, which when followed would provide a semblance of structure to our social, spiritual, sexual, and creative lives.
Indeed, in the most instructive, and most memorable sequence in the novel, the protagonist “Sheila” watches as two friends play a game of squash. It’s chaos down there on the court, impossible to follow, harder still to see who’s winning. Do they even know the rules? Do they care? Apparently not. “‘They’re just slamming the ball around,’ her friend Jon observes.” I’ll be goddamned if I can think of a better metaphor for life in this vertiginous, late capitalist moment.
The other through-line in Heti’s novel – which suggests autobiography, despite being heavily fictionalized – is Sheila’s struggle to write a play. The work was commissioned, and she needed the dough, so despite the fact that she didn’t know what she was doing, she took the gig. Her existential struggle to determine the answer to the novel’s titular question is, then, mirrored by her basic struggle to create art under these circumstances.
And so, when it was announced that Toronto-based independent theatre company Suburban Beast (in partnership with Videofag, the shoebox-tiny theatre in hip Kensington Market run by director Jordan Tannahill) was staging Heti’s fabled, unseen, decade-old play All Our Happy Days Are Stupid, fans of the novel buzzed with excitement. Even if there wasn’t a connection between this play and the one “Sheila” was grappling with throughout HSAPB, the possibility was too tantalizing to dismiss.
Almost right away the run was sold out. And, judging by the waves of excitement washing over the room the other night, I can’t imagine many patrons will be disappointed by what they’ll see on that rail-thin stage.
In All Our Happy Days Are Stupid, the Oddis and the Sings are two families from the same suburban community who run into each other while vacationing in Paris. Their adolescent children know each other from school, and have an instant connection, but the two mothers are immediately at each other’s nerves. Blonde, uncouth and inelegant, Grace Oddi (Naomi Skwarna) slaps up against the austere, raven-haired, and impossibly uptight Joy Sing (Becky Johnson), while their husbands stand ineffectually off to the side. As their kids, Jenny (a terrific Lorna Wright) and Daniel (Nick Hune Brown) radiate warmth, inquisitiveness, and the authenticity of guileless youth, while their mothers are played broadly, right on the knife-edge of camp. (Both lead actresses do a remarkable job here, finding just the right pitch to match the play’s oddball tone.)
Frustrated by their inability to find anything like the Paris they had been hoping for – a parade keeps winding through the scene, something which bothers them immensely for its apparent incongruousness with their expectations – they bicker, fail to connect, and frustrate their kids. That is, until Daniel joins the parade, wanders off, and disappears.
We are deep into absurdist territory here, and little in terms of plot from this point on can be described without my wandering off and disappearing myself. But, suffice it to say, Daniel’s disappearance is best understood as an escape, a refusal of the life that he had been living, and this gesture inspires the same in some of the other characters, with varying results.
Throughout, the play emphasizes the constructedness of our daily lives, the patterns we fall into, and the fundamental inauthenticity of our “happy days” when viewed through this lens. But, it wonders, does escape from these routines automatically result in “happy days”? And, even if it does, are “happy days” enough?
Featuring music by Dan Bejar (the deeply distinctive singer-songwriter behind Destroyer and about 1/3 of the songs by the New Pornographers), a compelling cast of professional and amateur actors (including a scene stealing Kayla Lorette and (remarkably) Heti’s ex-husband, celebrated music journalist Carl Wilson), an ingeniously ascetic set, and some of the most delightfully baffling moments you are likely to see onstage this season, All Our Happy Days Are Stupid is a triumph of intellectually-engaged theatre.