Sheila Heti is getting by with a little help from her friends.
In her acclaimed novel, How Should a Person Be?—which has attracted favorable notice from The New York Times, The New Yorker, Salon, and others—the 36-year-old writer documented her epic struggle to write a play about two families who meet on vacation in Paris. The play is her nemesis, a challenge seemingly insurmountable, and it throws her confidence and her friendships for a loop. Until now, that is, because that very play, All Our Happy Days Are Stupid, had its world premiere on Thursday night.
In How Should a Person Be?, described by the author as a “constructed reality,” Heti used her own life, and those of her friends, to build a compelling narrative. It makes sense that the same cast of characters would return to revive her long-forgotten script. Heti and the director of AOHDAS, Jordan Tannahill, filled the 13-person cast with their own friends, a mix of professional performers, musicians, writers, producers, and artists. Dan Bejar, frontman of Destroyer, donated original music. Videofag, the show’s venue, also doubles as Tannahill’s home, which he shares with his partner. It’s a real family affair, in more ways than one.
The story revolves around two vacationing families from the same seemingly small, suburban town. The Oddis have a 12-year-old daughter, Jenny, and the Sings have a 12-year-old son, Daniel. The two kids recognize each other from school. Shortly after the two families meet at a rowdy parade through Paris, Daniel goes missing. What follows involves a man in a panda suit, a visiting prince and his young wife, Mrs. Oddi’s flare for the flute, and an unlikely semblance of a friendship between the two matriarchs.
In Heti’s debut as a playwright (and she’s not much of one, if you ask her), she doesn’t really play by the rules of traditional play construction, which makes it easy to understand why other theatres were hesitant to program the piece, and why previous workshops didn’t work. AOHDAS has a large cast, multiple locations, and tricky plot developments (the two acts share the same characters but greatly shift in focus from Jenny to Mrs. Oddi). There also isn’t any single resolution or thematic takeaway, but rather several smaller revelations for each character. Heti tackles many issues, among them the process of aging and the definition of “adult,” the role of love in one’s personal fulfillment, mother/daughter relationships and friendships between women, and the authenticity of a city or person. It’s never really clear how exactly everything fits together. But, honestly, it’s absolutely refreshing for a play not to reach for a clean conclusion where one doesn’t exist.
Besides an unconventional approach to structure, Heti has a clear voice and a flair for dialogue that really comes alive through the performances of her friends and colleagues. Naomi Skwarna as Mrs. Oddi, Becky Johnson as Mrs. Sing, and Kayla Lorette as The Hobbled Man get the heartiest laughs, but all 13 cast members are in a certain sync, despite their varying levels of expertise.
With Rae Powell’s smart two-dimensional black-and-white set, the abstract style of AOHDAS somehow seems entirely logical, as if Jordan Tannahill’s vision for the play is the only one that could ever suit Heti’s challenging script. In fact, it’s hard to imagine this play living anywhere else, even though there’s likely to be plenty more interest from larger theatres across the country. But this cast, in this venue, for this brief period of time, makes AOHDAS work, and the production’s extremely temporary nature helps set it apart from more traditional theatrical models. We’re glad it’s finally having its moment on a Toronto stage.