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Stage Review

Middle-class angst drives 'Pursuit of Happiness'

Allyn Burrows, Monique Fowler (center), and Amelia McClain as parents and daughter in 'The Pursuit of Happiness' at Merrimack Repertory Theatre. Allyn Burrows, Monique Fowler (center), and Amelia McClain as parents and daughter in "The Pursuit of Happiness" at Merrimack Repertory Theatre. (megpix photography)

Expectations, with all the angst and excitement they create, drive Richard Dresser's latest comedy, "The Pursuit of Happiness." Dresser, who has become a favorite at Merrimack Repertory Theatre (this is his fifth play at MRT), likes to tackle big ideas that are hard to get your head around ("Gun Shy" deals with commitment; "Something in the Air," death; "Augusta," class). Although his dialogue is always reliably sharp and funny, believable character development is often elusive. Happily, like "Rounding Third," which focused on the passions that drive Little League, "The Pursuit of Happiness" focuses on a family that is all-too-familiar, even when their behavior becomes outrageous.

The play opens with Annie (Monique Fowler) setting the scene by dictating one of those excruciating Christmas letters (in January, of course) in which the family's deeds and misdeeds are couched in careful phrases meant to inspire admiration, jealousy, and nausea in equal measure. Through the letter we discover Annie's pursuit of happiness is all about acquisitions, the latest of which is finding the appropriate college for her daughter to attend.

Annie and her husband Neil (Allyn Burrows) are upper-middle-class parents whose pursuit of economic ease has been centered on providing opportunities for their daughter Jodi (Amelia McClain). But when Jodi, despite her perfect college profile (academics, sports, community service), decides college is a waste, she throws her parents, particularly her mother, into despair. Long after the deadline for college applications has passed, Jodi pens an essay arguing that the "pursuit of happiness" has become an empty effort to navigate a world that is thoroughly corrupt. "Can we set the bar a little higher than 'survive?' " she asks.

When Jodi accidentally e-mails her essay to her dad, it pushes him to question what he's been doing in a dead-end job that's made him miserable. When she encourages him to make some friends, Neil brings home Tucker (a hilariously low-key Jim Frangione), a man whose world is so limited, the possibility of a new cubicle is an exciting opportunity.

Annie, however, is determined to get her daughter into college, and figures her alma mater will be a good fallback. When she goes to a class reunion, she meets Spud (John Wojda), a former classmate who now works in admissions. Her determination to do "what any mother would" to get her daughter into school leads to disaster, but reading Jodi's essay is more shattering, making Annie question every decision she made as a parent.

Director Charles Towers excels at maneuvering ensembles through these tightly woven comic-dramas, and scenic and lighting designer Pavel Dobrusky has given him an imaginative space to work in. All of the scenes take place in a three-tiered, triangular set that narrows as they move up. The metaphor for climbing the ladder of "success" is subtle but effective.

Towers has gathered a terrific cast to bring this quirky crowd to life. The Elliot Norton Award-winning actor Burrows has a perfectly laconic delivery as Neil, who maintains a dangerously even keel even as he curses the wildlife bent on destroying his garden. Fowler is lovely as the overdramatic mom, barely able to separate her priorities from her daughter's. McClain offers just the right balance to the triangle, an 18-year-old who is remarkably centered, despite the chaos around her, while Frangione and Wojda provide comic relief.

Dresser's ear for parental panic and a child's struggle between approval and independence gives "The Pursuit of Happiness" a poignant edge, in a situation that is all too familiar.

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The Pursuit of Happiness

Directed by Charles Towers

Scenic and lighting design, Pavel Dobrusky. Costumes, Deb Newhall.

Presented by Merrimack Repertory Theatre, Lowell, through Oct. 28. Tickets: $26-$56. 978-654-4678,