How does a nation achieve greatness? In China’s case, the path to world domination is built on the back of the proletariat, exploited for cheap labor in return for the false hope and empty promises of a totalitarian government. Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s new play The World of Extreme Happiness strives, with mixed results, to give voice to an often invisible and undervalued class, simultaneously exploring the universal question of workers’ rights and the more personal family dynamics that take effect in such a society.
Produced at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre before its current Off Broadway debut at Manhattan Theatre Club, Happiness tells the story of Sunny (Jennifer Lim), a Chinese woman struggling to make something of herself in a culture that places little value on female life. From inauspicious beginnings—she’s unceremoniously dumped in the garbage by parents who had hoped for a boy, mere seconds after emerging from the womb—Sunny escapes the provinces for big-city opportunities. Ambitious and optimistic, she lands a job in a factory, working as a cleaning lady to support her father (James Saito) and pay for her younger brother’s (Telly Leung) education. She’s scrubbing toilets and mopping floors, dreaming of an office of her own where she’ll “sit in a nice chair all day and rely on [her] brains,” until a chance encounter with ditzy colleague Ming-Ming (Jo Mei, milking her character’s clown-like qualities to full comedic effect) brings her to a self-improvement guru (Francis Jue) and a renewed determination to reinvent herself. She eventually earns a starring turn in a company PR stunt, a showcase that doesn’t prove to be the launchpad she expects.
Difficult viewing at times, with raw reminders of the scars left by Mao’s atrocities and the desperation of the disenfranchised for a better existence, Happiness is, by turns, funny, profane, frustrating, and shocking. The play holds a few genuine surprises, but as a whole, Sunny’s journey remains somewhat heavy-handed and predictable. Still, the cast works hard, with all actors except for Lim pulling double–and sometimes triple–duty: Jue stands out as Mr. Destiny, a self-help charlatan á la Tom Cruise in Magnolia, and also as Sunny’s world-weary, traumatized boss, while Saito brings pathos to his depiction of Sunny’s father–a part that easily could have tipped into straight villainy–and likability to his local-boy-done-good businessman.
Though the roles are broadly painted, there are no straight-up bad guys here—even the most unsympathetic of them have clear, understandable motivations. Aptly, the relationship between Sunny and her brother is at the heart of the show, and it’s a compelling one: affectionate and exasperating, as siblings’ behavior often is. Lim’s performance is grounded and honest, and Cowhig’s intentions are in the right place but, as is so often the case in reality, Extreme Happiness is sadly elusive. C+