'Happy Life' review: Ghosts in the studio

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'Happy Life' review: Ghosts in the studio
by Naveen Kumar

NEW YORK, NY.- Urban real estate is flush with ghosts. How many people have lived and died alone, in apartments stacked toward the clouds? Cities thrive on fantasies of possibility, but the specter of suffering looms behind every door. Just ask the broker peddling a cleaned-up murder scene on the allure of its fresh lemon scent.

The soon-to-be tenant of that cramped studio in “Happy Life,” which opened at Walkerspace in Manhattan on Tuesday night, says she’s used to ghosts clinging to her shoulders. It’s a convenient match, because the two that haunt her new digs are not the type to go bump in the night and call it a day. They bicker like spoiled children, recollect the circumstances of their awful deaths and make impossible demands of the living.

Playwright Kathy Ng imagines a world where the boundary between this one and the next is porous but sticky, and where everyone on either side wants a second chance. It’s a reasonable motivation to propel characters forward, but “Happy Life” does not chart a conventional path. Ng’s influences include gruesome true crime and manga pornography, such that mortality, eroticism and Hello Kitty collide into a spirited, if sometimes muddled, contemplation of loneliness and loss.

The head ghost in charge (or HGIC, as Ng’s characters, prone to coining acronyms, might say) was the victim of a brutal homicide. Ng borrows details from the killing in 1999 of Fan Man-yee, a Hong Kong woman who was abducted and tortured by three men, in a case that came to be known as the “Hello Kitty” murder. Billed as Cat Mermaid and played with unbridled intensity by Priyanka Arya Krishnan, the HGIC has an iridescent tail that drapes off one leg and furry cat ears protruding from her tangle of hair (costumes are by Alicia Austin). Her claim to the site of her fatal ordeal is obvious, and she has every reason to be in a constant state of fury.

The other lingering soul (Sagan Chen) hanged himself from the bathroom doorknob. His chest is bandaged from post-mortem top surgery, performed by his phantom co-tenant — the wounds of a self-actualization that came only in death. His hope lies in potential reincarnation options (or ROs), which are not looking great, and in the unlikely support of their new mortal roommate (Amy Chang), who is recently divorced and learning to live on her own.

There’s a playful quality to Ng’s storytelling that encourages lighthearted engagement and the suspension of rationality. Can a ghost operate a phone-sex line? Can everyone see dead people if they really try? The rules that govern Ng’s theatrical plane are expansive and unencumbered, allowing for freer association of impulses and ideas. A queer sensibility in both form and content is evident throughout. But “Happy Life” forgoes maintaining even its own internal logic, such as when and why characters can communicate, whether they’re alive or dead.

The production, directed by Kat Yen for the Hearth theater company, dials up rather than tempers Ng’s inclination toward maximal expression. The performances are each calibrated to a static frequency — the forceful and pitiless apparition, the relentlessly placid new occupant — curtailing the potential for more dynamic shifts in character. The shades-of-gray apartment, lined with plastic sheeting in place of drywall and designed by Lily Guerin, is aptly neutral but still hopelessly drab, as much a suitable crime scene as it is a blank slate for a new beginning.

“Happy Life” seizes with an almost maniacal delight on the particulars of the “Hello Kitty” murder, more than once recounting the grisly details of the case. It could make for arresting commentary on the ways in which women are infantilized, dehumanized and ultimately consumed by a culture obsessed with sex and death. But there’s an insular quality to the play that resists broader resonance beyond its prescribed confines. The call is coming from inside the studio, but who is on the other end?

‘Happy Life’

Through Aug. 6 at Walkerspace, Manhattan; thehearththeater.com. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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