The World of Extreme Happiness

 

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Review by Michael Bracken

 

Sometimes riveting, sometimes ridiculous, with themes ranging from female oppression to social justice to New Age empowerment, The World of Extreme Happiness, at City Center, is all over the map. Or is it? Only one location, admittedly a huge country, merits its attention, and it examines that country with an eye for detail and a nose for truth.

Set in modern (1992-2012) China, Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s sprawling scenario of the lives of Chinese peasants opens a door that’s rarely ajar. Her characters don’t always ring true, her plot is sometimes predictable and simplistic, yet her China has an air of authenticity that’s remarkable. And her story of a girl who leaves the farm for the factory is often wrenching, touching, and compelling. But it’s Cowhig’s beguilingly tangible People’s Republic that makes this drama hum.

It’s hard to think of another play that has delved into current Chinese peasant life with such integrity and incisiveness. Its main focus is the peasant-in-the-big-city experience, but it also explores the grind of rural existence and gives a glimpse of socialist capitalists and the iron fist of the Chinese government.

At its center is Sunny (Jennifer Lim) with whose birth it begins. Not the boy her mother wanted, she’s thrown into the pig slop to die, then fortuitously saved minutes later by her father, who loves his racing pigeons more than he loves her.

Fast forward nineteen years and Sunny’s in the city of Shenzhen, cleaning toilets. Her life is as bleak as Mimi Lien’s bare, industrial-looking set, but she’s making enough money to put her younger brother, Pete (Telly Leung) through school and send a little cash to her father. A suicide has rendered a management post vacant, and she wants it. She meets and befriends Ming-Ming, (Jo Mei), who takes her to a rally led by Mr. Destiny (Francis Jue), a guru attired like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. Using a more traditional, hands-on interview technique, she gets the position.

Enter James Lin (James Saito) and Artemis Chang (Sue Jin Song), lovers and leaders of two related companies, Price-Smart (where Sunny works) and Jade River Manufacturing. Concerned about bad press from the high incidence of suicides at Price-Smart, Chang does a documentary extolling the “factory girl” and needs a live spokesperson to introduce it. Both Sunny and Ming-Ming audition.

Soon everything unravels.   Pete, who left school to become a janitor, hates it and quits. Ming-Ming falls apart when she doesn’t get the spokesperson role, and Sunny, struggling to define her identity, defies authority, only to pay a bitter price.

Director Eric Ting maintains a brisk pace by having one scene bleed into the next, at the same time connecting story lines and characters (played by only six actors, with everyone doubling or tripling except Lim as Sunny). Tyler Micoleau’s subtle lighting eases the transitions.

Lim’s portrayal of Sunny is straightforward and simple. Jo Mei is initially funny as Ming-Ming but becomes somewhat strident as the play progresses, reflecting Ming-Ming’s desperation as she watches Sunny move forward while she stands still. As Li Han, Sunny’s father, James Saito displays fifty shades of gruff, with an occasionally ray of compassion when dealing with his birds.

Identity and its meaning are at the heart of The World of Extreme Happiness. Is Sunny still the peasant girl from the sticks or has she metamorphosed into a city slicker? Is success worth sacrificing who you really are?   At various times throughout the play, we hear the legend of the Monkey King, who could change into any form. His relevance is not clear until near the play’s end. Pete points out to Sunny that the Monkey King’s transformations were temporary – he always stayed himself – while she wants to be a fake city person. It’s a lesson Sunny learns, but she learns it too late.

 

Manhattan Theater Club, City Center – Stage I (131 West 55th Street), Manhattan; 212-581-1212, www.ManhattanTheatreClub.com,  Through April 5th. Running time: 95 minutes.

 

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