- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Richard Dresser’s “The Pursuit of Happiness” provides a healthy dose of mostly good-natured humor, a welcome balance to the weightier dramas dominating this year’s Contemporary American Theater Festival, which opened its monthlong run in Shepherdstown, W. Va., last weekend. Mr. Dresser’s drama takes a lighthearted and at times a bitingly satirical look at how a middle-class family in Maine mounts a quest for wealth, joy and intellectual challenge — all of which seem to have been defined for them by someone else.

Mr. Dresser’s new work is part of an in-progress trilogy of plays exploring success in America as viewed through the lens of social class. The author appears to be genuinely vexed by what he sees as America’s desperate, almost autonomic race to achieve what he views as an unachievable utopian dream.

The premise of “Happiness” is simple. All good middle-class parents sacrifice so their children can attend college, since, without a degree in hand, they can never achieve their personal slice of the American Dream.

But, what if mom and dad’s golden child doesn’t want to go to college? That’s the dilemma faced by working parents Annie (Andrea Cirie) and Neil (Frank Deal), whose only child, Jodi (Carter Niles), a high-school overachiever, has no intention of gracing academia with her presence. Matters are further complicated when mom cops a Machiavellian one-night stand with old college chum Spud (Lou Sumrall), who just happens to be on the admissions committee of her alma mater. Meanwhile, Jodi acquires nerdy Tucker (Sheffield Chastain) as her significant other, ignoring the fact that he’s much older and works in a Dilbertian cube-farm along with her clueless dad.

Mr. Dresser is a genuinely witty writer. He knows how to hit the audience’s collective funny bone consistently, and is adept at figuring out where the psychological bodies are buried. It goes without saying that “The Pursuit of Happiness” is a lot of fun even though its characters, save perhaps for Mr. Sumrall’s angst-ridden Spud, are largely two-dimensional caricatures.

In the end, “Happiness” does not completely satisfy. After considerable craziness, not to mention infidelity, serious conflicts just seem to melt away.

The evening concludes on an incongruously fluffy note as Mr. Dresser’s nuclear family members cave in on one another while posing for a saccharine ending — the kind one might see on reruns of “Leave It to Beaver” or the “Donna Reed Show.”

The actors bravely give “The Pursuit of Happiness” the old college try, scoring technical knockouts on every punch line. Yet as the lights go down one is left expecting a Geritol commercial before the production credits roll in black and white.

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WHAT: Richard Dresser’s “The Pursuit of Happiness” at the Contemporary American Theater Festival

WHERE: Frank Center Theater, Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W. Va.

WHEN: Showtimes vary. Through July 29

TICKETS: $26 to 36

INFORMATION: Call 800-999-2283 or visit www.catf.org

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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