All Our Happy Days Are Stupid: 24 October 2013 - Toronto

Sheila Heti (author of the brilliant, convention-defying novel How Should a Person Be) wrote a play over a decade ago, but no one could figure out how to stage it. Until now.

All Our Happy Days Are Stupid

City: Toronto
Playwright: Sheila Heti
Venue: Videofag
Date: 2013-10-24

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.





Run the Jewels - "Ooh LA LA" (Singles Going Steady)

Run the Jewels' "Ooh LA LA" may hit with old-school hip-hop swagger, but it also frustratingly affirms misogynistic bro-culture.


New Translation of Balzac's 'Lost Illusions' Captivates

More than just a tale of one man's fall, Balzac's Lost Illusions charts how literature becomes another commodity in a system that demands backroom deals, moral compromise, and connections.


Protomartyr - "Processed by the Boys" (Singles Going Steady)

Protomartyr's "Processed By the Boys" is a gripping spin on reality as we know it, and here, the revolution is being televised.


Go-Go's Bassist Kathy Valentine Is on the "Write" Track After a Rock-Hard Life

The '80s were a wild and crazy time also filled with troubles, heartbreak and disappointment for Go-Go's bass player-guitarist Kathy Valentine, who covers many of those moments in her intriguing dual project that she discusses in this freewheeling interview.


New Brain Trajectory: An Interview With Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree

Two guitarists, Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree make an album largely absent of guitar playing and enter into a bold new phase of their careers. "We want to take this wherever we can and be free of genre restraints," says Lee Ranaldo.


'Trans Power' Is a Celebration of Radical Power and Beauty

Juno Roche's Trans Power discusses trans identity not as a passageway between one of two linear destinations, but as a destination of its own.


Yves Tumor Soars With 'Heaven to a Tortured Mind'

On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor relishes his shift to microphone caressing rock star. Here he steps out of his sonic chrysalis, dons some shiny black wings and soars.


Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras' tētēma Don't Hit the Mark on 'Necroscape'

tētēma's Necroscape has some highlights and some interesting ambiance, but ultimately it's a catalog of misses for Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras.


M. Ward Offers Comforting Escapism on 'Migration Stories'

Although M. Ward didn't plan the songs on Migration Stories for this pandemic, they're still capable of acting as a balm in these dark hours.


Parsonsfield Add Indie Pop to Their Folk on 'Happy Hour on the Floor'

Happy Hour on the Floor is a considerable departure from Parsonsfield's acclaimed rustic folk sound signaling their indie-pop orientation. Parsonsfield remind their audience to bestow gratitude and practice happiness: a truly welcomed exaltation.


JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.


All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.


Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.


Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.


Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.


'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.


Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.


Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Collapse Expand Reviews
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.