Before the sun dawns on There Is a Happiness That Morning Is, written by Mickle Maher and directed by Ruth Silveira at Sacred Fools, the glorious stuff of click-bait headlines has already taken place. The evening before, two professors at a tiny liberal arts college, both specialists in William Blake (the first, but not the last, improbable plot point), were caught making ecstatic love on the campus green in plain sight of pretty much everybody, including the scandalized president. Forced to apologize or risk losing their jobs, the rumpled scholars turn up to their respective classes at the top of the show to teach their final lectures on Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, ruminate on their misdeeds and, perhaps, to #sorrynotsorry apologize.
A sexy comedy delivered almost entirely in verse, Happiness avoids becoming too cutesy by punctuating pretty, sometimes profound lyricism with coarse plain speak: “And then we just go at it hard.” Bernard (Bryan Bellomo) and Ellen (Jessica Sherman) disrupt the sing-songy flow with expectant professorial pauses that thrust the audience into the role of gawking coeds, receiving the unfolding events with progressively escalating eyebrows.
Maher's schema contrasts goofball Bernard, rhapsodic over “Infant Joy,” with the more contained, intellectually rigorous Ellen, tasked with parsing Blake’s ominous “The Sick Rose.” Just as Blake intended his two bodies of work to be read in conversation with each other, the scholars share the stage for much of the play, receding into the background to take notes or doodle on the chalkboard when the other takes the floor. Like the poems themselves, the play’s dialectic presents and then counteracts its own points, pushing forward toward an uneasy synthesis. Along the way, we realize that for Ellen, far more is at stake than a simple apology.
This literary gamesmanship is a lot more fun and funny than it sounds, particularly when the matter at hand is sex and relationships. Maher constructs a terrific setup, but in the last third, the play starts to go off the rails. That’s when the despised college president (John Wuchte) appears and Maher mostly abandons his sincere philosophical quest for absurdist entertainment. Silveira’s direction embraces the script’s excesses, and what gravitas the play has largely disappears in a shuffle of flailing limbs and late reveals. Though Sherman moves fluidly from high to low comedy to pathos and back again and Bellomo throws himself into portraying his character’s artlessness, he’s less convincing when confronted with immediate or long-term threats to his relationship with Ellen.
The play is ultimately less interested in answering its own questions than taking a light-hearted gambol through the proverbial (and in the play’s case, literal) forest. There is much to enjoy here, but though the show concerns itself with consummation, I left the theater a little unsatisfied.
Sacred Fools Theater Company, 660 N. Heliotrope Drive, E. Hlywd.; through Feb. 28. (310) 281-8337, sacredfools.org
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