These Heti Days Are Yours and Mine: 'Happy Days' at the Kitchen

Sheila Heti's unstageable play, <i>All Our Happy Days Are Stupid</i>, brings Canadian collaboration, clumsiness, and joyful absurdity to the Kitchen.

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Mar 4 2015, 9:30pm

Naomi Skwarna, Lorna Wright, and Alexander Carson in 'All Our Happy Days Are Stupid' (2015), by Sheila Heti

For those who read Sheila Heti's How Should a Person Be?, All Our Happy Days Are Stupid is notorious: the script that can't be written, the play that can't be staged. All Our Happy Days torments Sheila's character in the novel; ultimately, the play is abandoned altogether. If it wasn't for the runaway success of How Should a Person Be?, All Our Happy Days might have never seen the light of day. For over a decade—the play was written in 2001, when Heti was 24—the play failed to make it to the stage. But after reading HSAPB, Jordan Tannahill—a young director who knew Heti tangentially, as everybody seems to know everybody in the Toronto art scene—sent Heti an email asking if he could see an early draft of the unstageable play.

"There's something about the fact I felt a bit afraid of the play," Tannahill told me the day before All Our Happy Days opened in New York. "It felt so unwieldy and epic. But I always find that when I'm afraid of a project, that's usually a good sign that I should take it on. That usually means there's something there that I should reckon with."

The basic premise of the play is that two mothers, each accompanying their three-person families on summer vacations in Paris, wrestle with the way their lives have gone since marrying and baby-making. Ms. Oddi, played by Canadian journalist Naomi Skwarna, ends up leaving her family to pursue a career as a hedonist flutist in Cannes. Mrs. Sing, played by comedian Becky Johnson, follows Ms. Oddi to Paris, only to immediately realize the "freedom" of Cannes makes her miserable. Somewhere along the way there's a preteen love story, a randy older man in a panda suit, and a roaming troubadour strumming a score composed by the New Pornographers' Dan Bejar. The actors in AOHDAS are not, per se, actors. "I'm not so interested in the idea of the actor as empty vessel," Tannahill told me, "I'm interested in interesting people." And interesting people he's got: From a dude who was on that TV show Lex to Heti's ex-husband Carl Wilson, the world of AOHDAS is populated by people you'd like to get a beer with. The first time I watched AOHDAS's "merry band of heavy-hitting misfits" sing, sway, and play on stage, I felt pangs of jealousy towards Canada, a country I'd previously written off as too cold, too white, and too nice.

In all, I saw All Our Happy Days Are Stupid three times—twice in rehearsal and once in public. The first time, it was a triumph. I was one of five people in the audience, a fly-on-the-wall reporter watching the cast go through a tech run, and I couldn't stop grinning. The play had heart. Look at them! I thought. All these talented, attractive people—each successful in their own creative field—making art together, fearless and free! What the fuck, New York? As I watched the play unfold, I daydreamed about Toronto, imagining a fairytale land of tight-knit artistic community, where writers and directors make rent while running dilapidated performance spaces called Videofag, where artists support each other with astonishingly little insecurity or resentment. "I kept waiting for the moment of bitchiness, but no one was bitchy," Heti admitted to me, during rehearsal that week. "No one played the villain." New York is going to shit on this play, I thought, but only because New York is jealous.

I was half right. New York did shit on the play, in the form of a disappointed New York Times review, which praised the minimalist, comic-inspired set design and dismissed everything else, describing the play's actors as "even more uncomfortable in their skins than the characters they portray." If you ever want to make someone "even more uncomfortable," here's a tip: Call them out on it. On Friday night, when I watched the play on its second night, the cast appeared visibly deflated, rushing through lines and missing important comedic beats. Naomi Skwarna, who had positively dazzled me during rehearsals, abandoned her character's air of flamboyance for a bored affect.

"Those moments of failure, those moments of misfire," Erin Brubacher, Tannahill's collaborator, told me after the tech run. "Those are the moments of humanity that we, the audience, see ourselves reflected in." But on the play's Friday night performance, I didn't see myself—I saw disappointment. The beauty of the first show was that the cast didn't seem embarrassed, even when they misstepped. The play's central relationship—the attempted and aborted friendship between loud and unwieldy Mrs. Sing and suave but insecure Ms. Oddi—drew me in, at once absurd and true, a la Bowles or Beckett. Small moments in the play were charming, and as always with Heti's work, the writing peaked in brief aphorisms that stuck with me for days. (Ms. Oddi: "My first boyfriend—oh, he smoked a very big pipe—he always said: Men make the world, and women decorate it. Well, it turns out he was right!" And at another point: "Do you want all the older boys laughing at you. Well, they will if you go around talking about authenticity all the time.") When I spoke with Skwarna, who had dazzled me with her unapologetic but humanizing portrayal of Ms. Oddi, she told me of the haphazard way she'd been brought into the cast. (Like most of the actors, she'd been asked to a cold reading in a friend's backyard one summer night.) Skwarna seemed genuinely thrilled to be a part of the show; a writer and theater critic herself, she had visited New York before, on the other side of the stage. "And now I'm back, as the performer," she marveled.

The cast seemed like a group of friends dancing shamelessly at a stranger's party: the less skilled among them buoyed up by enthusiasm, the talented ones shining with ease and grace. The joy was infectious, and when I raved about the play to Brubacher, she laughed, "That wasn't even at 100 percent!" Multiple cast members told me that they'd enjoyed watching me watch the show, a dynamic I hadn't thought to consider. All Our Happy Days felt, to me, like a living, breathing organism made up of hodge-podge cells: cast, director, writer, audience. I left the Kitchen that evening, after 10 hours and two dress rehearsals, feeling like I'd been a welcome guest in a wonderful and nutso family home.

Michael McManus, Lorna Wright, Naomi Skwarna, and Alexander Carson in 'All Our Happy Days Are Stupid' (2015), by Sheila Heti

But when I returned on Friday, the spirit in the theater felt noticeably changed. Only one joy remained consistent from the first run to the third: the Hobbled Man's electrifying and show-stealing "happy" dance, brilliantly performed by Canadian comedian Kayla Lorette.

The dance arrives toward the end of the winding play, on a boardwalk in Cannes. Johnny Rockets, a Bieber-esque pop star, listens distractedly while the Hobbled Man reminisces about life. "When I was younger," he laments, "I would do little dances, when I was happy. Like this." Suddenly spry, Lorette's character does a quick cha-cha, swivels his hips, and gives a little pelvic thrust. "But I never wanted anyone else to see it," he admits, returning to his hunched-over stance. "I was embarrassed about it. I never saw anyone else do these dances, so I was very ashamed! I hid myself."

The moral here is easy enough: The old man's embarrassment consigns him to a life of isolation and loneliness. Aren't we better off risking a bit of shame for the chance to really live? It's one of many lessons Heti's aphorism-loaded play attempts to impart to its audience. The final lines of All Our Happy Days are, literally, "Don't become the thing you hated," sung over and over as a kind of outro. It's solid advice, if advice is what you're looking for.

You could say Sheila Heti is a self-help artist. It's a label I doubt that she, a self-professed self-help fan herself, would take serious issue with. Over the course of the past two decades, her work has been unapologetically concerned with the questions of living a Good Life: How should a woman dress? How should an introvert socialize? How Should a Person Be? Heti's work contains all of the qualities we're meant to find unseemly: earnestness, overt gratitude, easy poetry. "There's so much beauty in this world that it's hard to begin," Heti gushes in HSAPB. "There are no words with which to express my gratitude at having been given this one chance to live." The young men I would lend HSAPB wrote off Heti as "far too sentimental" and "whiney"; one critic called her "less self aware and less insightful than an episode of Sex and the City." But for my generation of hungry young women, Heti's work offers humor and shared humiliation and hubris, affirming the absurdity (and yes, the stupidity) of all our happy days. She is the drunk-mind sober-heart artist, putting bare and sentimental what others might dress in subtler clothes.

Michael McManus and Naomi Skwarna in 'All Our Happy Days Are Stupid' (2015), by Sheila Heti

Perhaps it is this self-help quality that made All Our Happy Days Are Stupid such a pleasure to watch alone, as a reporter during their tech rehearsal, and such a discomfort to watch, next to a packed-house crowd on Friday night. Therapy requires intimacy, either through solitude or familiarity. I can imagine that the first run of All Our Happy Days—which took place in 2013, at Tannahill's Videofag, and had audiences of 30—didn't suffer from the problems the play faced in New York. This play is a play meant to be performed by friends for friends: The audience on Friday never really caught on to that idea, performing for each other (Should I laugh at this moment? Is this embarrassing?) instead of allowing themselves to be absorbed into the show.

The audience on Friday was full of women like me, observers of Heti's artistic orbit, eager to see it set to stage. The crowd skewed very young, very white, very female. No one seemed willing or ready to wholeheartedly endorse Heti. "I don't know anything about this," one young woman behind me said to her companion as she pushed her coat off her shoulders, "But her book was, like, a very big deal, right?" "Sure," her friend sighed, "in terms of attention." It was very apparent that neither had read the book, a reality that speaks to Heti's popularity even amongst those who have only seen her work across the subway aisle, in someone else's hands. (Later, during the intermission, the friend said blandly, "It's just all so familiar.")

When it came time for the Q&A after the show, no one raised their hands, but several raised their phones, to snap photos. Apparently, Heti has achieved Instagram-worthy levels of celebrity. At last, someone spoke up. "What's it like to see your creation finally come to life?" a 30-something woman in the crowd asked. Heti, surrounded on stage by all the play's actors, cocked her mic at an angle. "I find it less interesting every time I see it," she replied. When asked if she would write the same play again, Heti laughed. "No! It's a horrible play." The audience laughed, uncomfortably—no one could tell if she was being ironic. Tannahill, seated next to her with his own mic in hand, smiled amiably.

There's a concept in How Should a Person Be? that I think of often. Heti writes that while most people live private lives, a few walk around with their clothes off, "destined to expose every part of themselves, so the rest of us can know what it means to be a human." For the ungainly, for the young, and for the writer, this idea is one of tremendous comfort; it's probably the reason I read Heti. She makes you feel better about your embarrassments; she gives your shame a purpose. "Some of us have to be naked, so the rest can be exempted by fate," she explains.

The first time I saw All Our Happy Days Are Stupid, the cast was a cast of naked people, and I was naked too. That Friday night, it felt like we were all grasping for a piece of clothing here or there, even Heti. But who can we blame? New York, these days, is terribly cold. Even if it's to the north, Toronto seems far warmer.

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