It hardly seems fair. Jeb, Misa and Emilio are dealing with a blizzard that has descended on Minnesota. They also are grappling with the meaning of life and death: They have, after all, met up for the purpose of committing suicide together. The last thing they need is a seemingly haunted record player that plays Bob Dylan.
Planning a decent demise turns out to be more than a little tricky in “happiness (and other reasons to die),” a suspenseful, dark and funny new play by local playwright Bob Bartlett. Now on view in a winningly acted production from the Welders, a collective of D.C.-based playwrights, “happiness” turns what sounds like a gimmicky premise into an absorbing chronicle of unpredictable human behavior.
Directed by Gregg Henry at the Atlas Performing Arts Center’s Lab Theatre II, the production begins with a bang — literally. Just before Jeb (Elan Zafir), Misa (Melissa Flaim) and Emilio (Carlos Saldaña) arrive at the Duluth home of Ella, with whom they have formed a four-person suicide-by-asphyxiation agreement, Ella changes her mind and shoots herself. (We hear the gunshot.) Now the remaining threesome feels obligated to tidy up her grotesquely cluttered house — Ella was a hoarder — and manage her dying dog and spooky record player.
Those tasks would be difficult enough if Jeb, Misa and Emilio were on good terms. But they met on Craigslist, and their face-to-face dealings are hamstrung by distrust, paranoia, desperate neediness and, as time marches toward New Year’s Eve, the planned date of their suicide, a little grudging affection. The complicated interpersonal dynamics sometimes give the story a thriller-like tension, which the eerie phenomena in Ella’s house only intensify. The troubled group rapport also is a source of humor. After the deathwish-fueled Nolan (Graham Pilato) appears on the scene, he drives Jeb nuts by referring to an existing “suicide club.”
“Pact, Nolan,” Jeb emphasizes testily. “It’s a pact.”
The staging puts the audience on either side of Collin Ranney’s meticulously slovenly kitchen set, complete with a stained refrigerator, rusted cabinets, piles of newspapers, containers of records and cassette tapes, and other junk. The visible outlines of all four walls — the set is basically a full room, with gaps in the vertical partitions — aptly give us a strong sense of voyeuristic spying.
Over the course of the play’s 90 intermissionless minutes, we eventually learn the causes that have driven Jeb, Misa and Emilio toward suicide. Truth to tell, the information is not entirely satisfying: The causes are too tidy and schematic. Fortunately, this dramaturgical snag doesn’t hamper the actors, who succeed in making their characters seem real, grounded and fully in the moment throughout.
Flaim demonstrates that Misa’s energetic efficiency hides a wealth of pain; Saldaña is persuasively surly and menacing as Emilio; and Zafir’s amusingly flippant and chatty Jeb shows a vulnerable side, to poignant effect. Miyuki Williams channels Misoka, a medium who may or may not be able to get in touch with Ella’s spirit.
And Pilato is both funny and alarming as the goofily unhinged Nolan. The character’s appearance represents just one of the strategies that Bartlett has used to keep his story intriguing and dynamic.
Wren is a freelance writer.
By Bob Bartlett. Directed by Gregg Henry. Lighting design, John D. Alexander; costumes, Gail Stewart Beach; sound, Kenny Neal; properties master, Jacy Barber; technical director, Austin Byrd; dramaturg, D.W. Gregory. About 90 minutes. Tickets: $10-$20. Through June 13 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. www.atlasarts.org.