By Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig; Directed by Eric Ting
Produced by Manhattan Theatre Club
Off Broadway, New Play
Runs through 3.29.15
NY City Center -- Stage I, 131 West 55th Street
by Jan Rosenberg on 2.25.15
Jo Mei and Jennifer Lim in The World of Extreme Happiness. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
BOTTOM LINE: A brutally honest glimpse of what happens when one female factory worker dares to dream big in oppressive China.
Better to be dead than to be born female in China. This is the mantra the ironically named Sunny carries with her from the day she’s born. Unwanted and mistaken for dead, she’s thrown away with the trash. Sunny (wryly played by Jennifer Lim) survives the slop bucket and from that moment on is determined to rise above her predestined life of unhappiness. As we come to find through a series of darkly comical events, such aspirations may be hopeless. And they come at tragic costs.
Sunny is determined to make a good life for herself in the city. She covets a respectable office job. Instead, she’s cleaning toilets in a factory. She spends her hard-earned money on school tuition for her younger brother Pete (played with heartwarming naiveté by Telly Leung). Their father Li Han (James Saito) is a bitter, depressed mineworker who cares more for his beloved pigeons than his children. Their mother died after finally giving birth to a boy, and Li Han holds this tragedy over both of their heads.
Desperate for a job promotion, Sunny is discouraged by her superior Old Lao (Francis Jue), who tells her: “Keep your aspirations low and your expectations lower. That way you’ll never be disappointed.” Suicide is more common among factory workers than job promotions. Just when things are looking hopeless, Sunny meets factory worker Ming-Ming (portrayed with hilarious awkwardness by Jo Mei). Ming-Ming introduces her to the self-help world, reinstating a new-found confidence in Sunny.
Meanwhile, the cartoonishly villainous factory owner James Lin (also played by Saito) and major retail chain owner Artemis Chang (Sue Jin Song) are brainstorming ways to gain positive publicity for the factories and distract from the rash of suicides amongst its workers. They need a spokesperson, a factory worker who can convince the people that she is truly happy. And Sunny is just the girl for the job.
At times it’s difficult to determine the tone of Cowhig’s play, directed by Eric Ting. Some of Cowhig’s funnier dialogue gets snuffed out by uncertain delivery, or else the focus is diverted too quickly for the words to sink in. At other points, more haunting and serious moments get trampled over with too dry humor. For instance, Sunny’s marriage to a ghost: a distracting subplot that momentarily brings her back home from the city. Sunny performs a frighteningly violent act in order save herself from becoming a mute housewife. What could have been a sobering moment revealing a darkness brewing in Sunny is lightly skimmed over and never returned to.
The World of Extreme Happiness is provocatively titled and often hard to swallow because it is so bleak. You may not leave feeling extremely happy, but you will definitely be grateful to not be in Sunny’s (and all of the low income workers like her today) predicament.
(The World of Extreme Happiness plays at MTC Stage I at NY City Center, 131 West 55th Street, through March 29, 2015. Performances are Tuesdays at 7PM; Wednesdays at 2PM and 7PM; Thursdays and Fridays at 8PM; Saturdays at 2PM and 8PM; and Sundays at 2PM. Tickets are $85 and are available at nycitycenter.org or by calling 212.581.1212.)