HOOKED ON HAPPINESS: Show Review by Jo Mispel

(photo by Russ Roland)

THEATER FOR THE NEW CITY (TNC) is an amazing East Village cultural center that has been running since 1971 and has won 43 Obies and a Pulitzer Prize. It is a wonderful Off-Off-Broadway space, publicly funded and forever giving back to the community with a variety of educational programs. One feels immersed in the historical narrative of downtown creativity once inside the huge, four theater, building.

TNC produces a prolific amount of new plays each year, many from new and emerging playwrights, and usually with a political lens. I visited this eclectic theater last Friday to see Tom Attea’s new musical “Hooked on Happiness”. This was not Tom’s first play however, in fact, he has had a long connection with TNC having had 14 shows performed there.

“Hooked on Happiness” promotes itself as “The Musical for a cooler planet’ and is about a group of high schoolers who, with the support of their drama teacher, want to put on a play about the climate crisis. A provocative subject choice as most come from conservative and evangelical families who are staunch denialists. This premise interested me greatly, and I was eager to witness what might come of this clash.

The theater space used for “Hooked on Happiness” is an impressive size (the building used to be a Tabernacle Baptist church) with the audience on bleacher type seating. There was a tight live band accompanying the show with drums, bass, and piano. I love live music in theater, and it felt more than apt for a play about a school production. The music is composed by Tom Attea’s long-time collaborator Arthur Abrams. The stage set by Mark Marcante is simple but effective; a gorgeous silk curtain cut organically to frame trees silhouetted behind. The height of the curtain allowed it to double as a screen for projected video at various points throughout the play.

We first meet the main characters, highschooler Kim (played with energy and charisma by Hannah Carne) and her boyfriend Eric (Leonard W. Rose), sunning themselves on beach chairs, wilting in the heat. The day turns their thoughts to climate change, and after bantering their way through a sense of hopelessness, Kim suggests that they approach their drama teacher to ask if they could create their own end of year play examining the crisis. Better than returning to the classics they were given to choose from. After all, as they will argue effectively later, ecological collapse is the paramount issue of their lifetimes, and their evangelical, tv watching, waiting-for-heaven parents, not only do nothing about it, they deny it is even real. Like all aware young people, they feel genuine panic, fear, and despair and want the opportunity to wake their own families up to the emergency and necessary work ahead.

Their drama teacher Ms. Holly Carlson, played with comic and endearing motherliness by Liz Bealko, is at first reluctant to let the kids create their own show. Especially one that could be so divisive. But feeling the genuine passion and concern of her students, and liking their work, she lets them proceed and supports them fiercely, even while knowing it could put her job at risk.

We quickly proceed to the actual show the kids perform for their parents, guardians, and community. It is delightfully earnest and amateur, as most high school plays are. The ‘kids’ run through somewhat disjointed musical numbers whose lyrics outline the usual alarming facts and figures. Other songs are softer pleas to give up hate for love. The teenagers call out their conservative parents who they see as waiting for the next life while disrespecting and acting with conditioned blindness to the one they are in here and now. I found it all a little didactic, but one would suspect this from teenagers full of fresh fear and understandable anger. Unfortunately, this approach is not usually the most efficacious way to change the minds of those in denial or disavowal. And maybe dancing animals is a little too cutesy? Ms. Taylor also joins the performance on occasion, and one of the most satisfying numbers was a blues song she sings as mother earth. Liz Bealko can really sing the blues.

The most disappointing part of this play though is the fact that it ends up just being the school performance. The only thing we know of the families’ reactions are recorded boos and heckling (a little discordant over the real audience’s clapping). Ms. Taylor and the students break from the show briefly to defend themselves, and the kids threaten to strike if their beloved drama teacher is in any way penalized for their work. At this point I was sitting up attentively, hoping to see some further story development. I would have loved to hear some real dialogue between these young people and their parents. To see what they might do to really elicit change when met with walls of such painful resistance. This is a question on many of our minds as we deal with the global ecological crisis in a country handcuffed by a politizing of climate change, a decades-long push to present the science as a hoax and a tenacious effort by big money to extract every last finite source of energy on this planet. But no, there was nothing. The play ends, the parental audience still boos, apparently immune to any of the songs either of horror or love. End of show. It felt like a wasted opportunity to explore these next step issues more deeply in ways that perhaps only theater can do. It also made the overly didactic nature of the songs feel off-key as one would like to presume that most of us New Yorkers attending plays in the village have educated ourselves on the science?

“Hooked on Happiness” might appeal to young theater groups who can appreciate the work these talented young thespians have put into the acting, singing and dancing. But as a deeper dive into complex issues, as I presume most of Tom’s Attea’s political plays are, it was ultimately unsatisfying. Perhaps a part two, examining the more challenging dialogues that would unfold once these youngsters return home, would be the play I had actually hoped to see.

Visit https://theaterforthenewcity.net/?vh_show=hooked-on-happiness.

By Tom Attea; Music by Arthur Abrams
Directed by Mark Marcante
Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 8PM, Sunday at 3PM

Theater for the New City
155 First Avenue
(between 9th and 10th Streets)
New York, NY 10003














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