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"Happy" in America

Date: Jan 26, 2010


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Lucinda Coxon, a British playwright and screenwriter whose works have been produced on both sides of the Atlantic, says that Happy Now? is her most commercial play to date. That makes her something of an anomaly in New York: A foreign woman with a hot property.

The story of a frustrated working mother and her similarly dissatisfied friends, Happy Now? begins performances tomorrow at 59E59 after runs at theYale Repertory Theatre and The National Theatre in London. It is a departure from Coxon's earlier work like Vesuvius, a dark and poetic play in which characters known only as The Woman and The Man quietly learn to cope with their fear of the world. When it premiered at South Coast Repertory in 2005, Vesuvius' set was an abstract suggestion of an ash-covered world. Happy Now?, meanwhile, feels rooted in the reality of domestic life. "It may be difficult in other ways, but it's full of very real things." Coxon says, "The pill is quite heavily sugared. It has quite a lot of jokes and people have found it very funny."

Playing as part of Primary Stages' twenty-fifth anniversary season, which is dedicated to female playwrights, Happy Now? arrives in an Off Broadway season that has boasted several buzzed-about plays written by women, including Annie Baker's Circle Mirror Transformation, Lynn Redgrave's Nightingale, and Young Jean Lee's Lear. Broadway, however, remains dominated by male writers.

Asked how she perceives this imbalance, Coxon, though not overly familiar with Broadway, guesses that women are writing less-commercial plays than men. But she is quick to add that Mamma Mia! is an extremely successful show with many women behind it. "Catherine Johnson, who wrote the book for that, is a British playwright with a track record of writing really interesting, quite difficult plays, and with Mamma Mia! she wrote something that obviously had a much broader commercial appeal," she says. "She's the same person. She just happened to in that one instance hit on a much more commercial venture. But it doesn't mean that she's only going to do that for the rest of her career."

As for Happy Now?, Coxon muses that it became a hit-selling out at the National Theatre before it opened-partially because of its subject matter."The idea of a play about a woman who is struggling, that alone proved enormously popular because in theatre, there isn't very much about it," she says. "It may be something that novels deal with or that television deals with in kind of a superficial way, but it's not something that plays have dealt with very much."

The play was also well received at Yale Rep in late 2008, which added to Coxon's positive experience as a British writer working in America. She attributes part of her good fortune to her outsider status. "I remember describing to [popular American playwright] Sarah Ruhl one day at South Coast Rep the relationship I had with some of the theatres in the States, and I assumed it was the same for everyone," she says. "She looked slightly slack-jawed in amazement and obviously felt that she at that time had had a less charmed run at it. I think what I was experiencing was essentially a kind of outsider glamour, and there was a kind of courtesy being extended to me that was not necessarily being extended to other women playwrights."

Coxon, who is herself a mother, recognizes the struggles that female playwrights face, from raising children to the boys'-club nature of the business, but she has stuck with it. "I suppose I'd give it up if I could, but it's a sort of illness," she says. "I think it's a disease, writing for the theatre. I can never understand why people would want to catch it, but it's a disease, and people who continue doing it do it because they can't help it."

Linda Buchwald is an assistant editor at Scholastic. She blogs for Critic-O-Meter and her own blog, Pataphysical Science.