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'The World of Extreme Happiness' - A Bracing Look at Life in China

Jo Mei, Jennifer Lim and Francis Jue in The World of Extreme Happiness.
(©Matthew Murphy)

Playwright Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig reveals a richly dangerous universe in The World of Extreme Happiness, which has just opened in a Manhattan Theatre Club production at City Center Stage I. It’s a bracing and ambitious piece of writing from an exciting new voice for the stage.

Cowhig plunges audiences into the darkly comic play as a woman in rural China squats to give birth in the doorway of her meager home while her husband simultaneously frets about a lost pet pigeon and berates the midwife about his need for a son. When the newborn turns out to be a girl, she’s wrapped in paper and discarded in a bucket of pig slop and left to die.

She doesn’t, though, and gets the unlikely name of Sunny. When she grows up, Sunny (Jennifer Lim) leaves her family to work in a factory in Beijing after her mother produces the male heir that her father so desperately wanted. Working as a maintenance person in a huge factory, Sunny sends her money home to support her brother (played with charming impishness by Telly Leung) and his education. She wants him to have a better life than she does.

Sunny’s existence in the big city gives playwright Cowhig the opportunity to explore a wide gamut of issues relating to life in China today, and there’s little that her voraciously wide-ranging play leaves uncovered. Primary in all of this is the plight of peasants who migrate to big cities to better their lots in life. But beyond that there’s both the legacy of Maoist policies in China as well as the aftereffects of the Tiananmen Square uprisings of 1989.

Cowhig also touches on how the emergence of certain capitalist principals in the country has fueled a fascination with self-help theories and also the despair that some workers feel. There are several references to suicides which bring to mind the headlines about the deaths at the Foxconn factories in 2014.

It’s a lot to cover in a ninety-minute play, and as a result, the play’s varied plot strands which often feel as if they are underwritten. Cowhig’s narrative about Sunny and her efforts to better herself comes across best. Not only is it the most fully developed, Lim brings an aching anger and resentment that’s leavened with earthy sweetness to create a character who continually captures audiences minds and hearts.

When a coworker takes Sunny to a seminar run by Mr. Destiny (played with amusing slickness by Frances Jue) who teaches self-empowerment using the sort of style associated with Las Vegas floor shows, one can’t help but feel that torn. On one level, theatergoers want Sunny to learn something from this seeming charlatan. On another, though, audiences also want this sensitive young woman to run the other way and find someone less oily to help her in her goals.

Elsewhere though, particularly when it comes to Artemis Minerva (Sue Jin Song), the arch and hard-as-nails businesswoman at the company where Sunny works, Cowhig’s writing fails to convince. Song is terrific in the role and finds ways to modulate the woman’s imperiously chilly facade. And once the play starts to delve into her past, Song’s work has an understated sadness to it. The problem is that the revelations about this woman’s familial history seem tacked on to the work as a whole.

Thankfully neither Cowhig’s ear for zestful--sometimes profanity-rich--dialogue never falters nor do any of the multiply cast performers, who also include James Saito as both Sunny’s haunted and embittered father and the tentatively ambitious man who runs the company where Sunny works and Jo Mei, who delights as Sunny’s aggressive and desperate to get ahead coworker Ming-Ming.

The show, directed with economy by Eric Ting, unfolds in a dour gray industrial environment (from scenic designer Mimi Lien) which transforms surprisingly throughout the show, and Jenny Mannis’ contemporary costume design sparks the action, providing rich character details. Lighting designer Tyler Micoleau uses color to cunning atmospheric effect, and though the show doesn’t always incite extreme happiness, it’s never anything but intriguing.

---- Andy Propst

The World of Extreme Happiness plays at City Center Stage I (131 West 55th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: www.manhattantheatreclub.com.