‘THE WORLD OF EXTREME HAPPINESS’
When: Through Oct. 12
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn
Info: (312) 443-3800; www.GoodmanTheatre.org
Run time: 2 hours and 20 minutes with one intermission
Without question there is a play to be written about “the new China” and the altogether astounding changes that have jet-propelled a huge population into a radically transformed way of life over the course of just three decades. Unfortunately, Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s grotesquely cartoonish “The World of Extreme Happiness” — now in a Goodman Theatre production directed with a similarly heavy hand by Eric Ting — is not that play.
To be sure, Cowhig taps into the plight of one of the millions of children of poor peasant families who headed to the massive, newly engineered industrial cities in the southeast of China to earn money in physically and emotionally crushing jobs — all the while struggling to make sense of urban life and adapt to their society’s new cutthroat competitiveness and success-at-any-price mentality. But were Cowhig herself not of Chinese descent (born in Philadelphia, she was raised in Virginia, Okinawa, Taipei and Beijing), she might easily be accused of indulging in the most insulting stereotypes. And the tragic ending of her play in no way mitigates the two-dimensional, almost minstrel-show-like nature of all that precedes it.
The play (to be remounted at the Manhattan Theatre Club in February) begins in a rural village where Sunny (the ideally stolid Jennifer Lim) is born. An unwanted daughter in a society that only values boys, her selfish, backward father (Donald Li) raises birds, and her crude mother (Jodi Long) is an exhausted breeder. Though dumped into a slop bucket with the belief that she will just die, the infant Sunny proves to be a survivor. She will grow up to work the farm and raise her imaginative but feckless younger brother (a playful, animated Ruy Iksandar), and pay for the education she was denied. Determined to make a better life for herself, the teenage Sunny (youth is her capital) heads to the city and gets a job as a cleaning lady in a factory.
Sunny’s dream of advancement to a desk job seems to be going nowhere until she is coached by a hipper, more audacious co-worker (the winningly exuberant Jo Mei), who shares her wild enthusiasm for self-improvement techniques. She gets a real boost during a reality TV show whose hostdispenses Oprah-like advice, but it is a more old-fashioned sex technique that earns her an upgrade from her supervisor (Francis Jue), a wizened old guy who lived through the famines and other calamities of an earlier period in China.
What subsequently leads to Sunny’s undoing is her quest to play “the average factory girl” in a documentary made by a super-chic, utterly corrupt Chinese female executive at a multinational corporation (Long). During a speech at its premiere in the iconic Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Sunny finally vents, and the wrath of an all-powerful state quickly becomes apparent.
The play’s savagely cartoonish portrayal of peasants is offensive (they survived horrific conditions, and many of them are now fighting land grabs and corruption, and paying a terrible price). And while many immigrant workers have faced traumatic and dehumanizing experiences in the cities (and some have been driven to suicide, which is treated rather bluntly here), far more have grabbed hold of life-altering opportunities in a way perhaps unmatched in history.
To be sure, the government response to the current demonstrations in Hong Kong (supposedly “the exception” to the mainland’s top-down political control) is a vivid reminder of all that has not changed in China. But “The World of Extreme Happiness” trivializes what HAS unfolded there. And while it is not beyond satire, it deserves a more balanced portrayal than the one offered here.