Stay Sweet, Stay Happy is Nom de Guerre's first original play, and is a work created entirely, over 16 weeks, through improvisation. Like you, the first thing I thought upon hearing that, was, "oh, no -- another bad improv/Saturday Night Live rip-off." I'll tell you that Stay Sweet could not be farther from that initial fear -- it's a powerful, thoughtful piece as far removed from Who's Line is it Anyway? as George W. Bush is from FDR.
Stay Sweet follows Bobby (Terrance Elton), a struggling artist with a dark secret, Eddie (Alex Fernandez), a mystery man and successful artist who appears to give Bobby and Susie exactly what they want, and Susie (Melody Doyle), a kind-hearted social worker who senses Bobby's and Eddie's need for companionship. The play could as easily be called, the Lies We Tell to Cover Our Dark Secrets and Generally Fuck with Susie, Who's Got Secrets of Her Own, but I'm partial to the real title's simplicity.
The play begins with two strangers, Eddie and Susie, extending friendship and help to Bobby, who's new in town (Eddie offers to help him get a showing of his art, and Susie brings him his car keys, lost after a drunken party). Bobby, for his part, tries awkwardly to return the kindnesses, but his social skills, let us say, leave something to be desired. From this simple beginning, though, things begin to get complicated, as characters meet in pairs or take the stage individually, saying things and acting in a manner which completely contradicts what has come before. As the lies pile up and situations become more complicated, Bobby is no longer seen as a victim of circumstance, Eddie is no longer the kindly artist he seemed, and Susie cannot keep it together the way a a social worker should. Inevitably, situations unravel, and each character is left alone with his or her own deceit and failures as company.
The story itself is bumpy in spots (though the twists -- especially the early ones -- are smart and delicious), and sometime feels like it is still being born. But there is mystery, drama and humor in large doses, and the acting is as mature, real and engaging as any I've seen. Elton is able to mine an almost physical pain as Bobby struggles to pull himself out of his social isolation, all while keeping his demons hidden inside. Doyle is alternately charming and pathetic as the social worker who tries to help others as a way of compensating for her inability to help herself. Fernandez is electromagnetic as Eddie, in all his incarnations, and commands the space around himself in a way very, very few actors can, even while sitting slumped in a chair in the far corner of the stage, singing softly.
The acting alone is worth the price of admission to Stay Sweet, but the staging deserves a nod as well. Guillermo Cienfuegos is a master at realistic staging in non-traditional spaces (as shown by last years' Pains of Youth), and does not disappoint here. Most notable, for me, were the couple of scenes which took place entirely in another room, visible through a window, but almost inaudible -- the audience can hear the pitch and tone of the conversations as they rise and fall, and can see the emotion through the characters' faces, but is left to guess at most of what is said.
And this is kind of a theme throughout the show. What we see on stage is only a tiny sliver of the whole picture. The actors give us the highlights -- the sweet spots -- of the events as they unfold, and from these well-crafted but frustratingly small clues we are left to infer what is really going on. This requires a great deal of intellectual participation on the part of the audience, and leaves many loose threads in the end, which may turn some folks off. But if you are willing to invest a little brain power in your night at the theater, you cannot help but enjoy Stay Sweet Stay Happy.
"Stay Sweet, Stay Happy," presented by Nom de Guerre Productions at Paul E. Richards' Theater Place, 2902 Rowena Ave., Silver Lake. October 24 - November 23, performances Fri & Sat @ 8pm, Sun @ 7pm. Call 323.401.6585 for reservations.
Note: I know the folks at Nom de Guerre pretty well --they are good friends. Even so, I'm a pretty ruthless reviewer and, if I wasn't completely taken with this production, I would, out of friendship, not review it at all. I really liked this show, and everything I've written above is well-deserved.