“Through These Portals Pass the Nicest People in Newark,” reads as a sign at the entrance of the Jersey Mecca, the saloon that provides the set for Anita Loos’ Happy Birthday. It’s a reverse of the famous inscription Dante placed before the ninth circle of hell, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” The Mecca is home to a handful of regulars, like Gabe Darcy (Joe Tippett), a married man who is trying to convince his “monkey,” Bella Lane (Hanna Cheek), that his divorce is on its way, or Tot (Darrie Lawrence) and Emma (Nora Chester), two old drunks who show up hoping to see some drama—Tot’s usual is “a double bourbon with beer as an escort.” So when Addie Bemis (Mary Bacon)—the teetotaling daughter of a notorious, local alcoholic—walks in one night to meet with a “Mr. Bishop” (Todd Gearhart), everyone takes notice. What follows is a delightful screwball comedy during which Addie discovers the wonders of drinking and Paul Bishop discovers that his fiancée, Maude Carson (Victoria Mack), isn’t the innocent, baby-voiced marriage material he is looking for. Entering the bar in the opening scene, she announces, “The rain! Well, it’s wet!” which is about as sophisticated as her conversation will ever get.
Loos was the author of the fun, lightly satiric novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and its less enjoyable sequel, But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes. Her play works along the same lines, poking fun at gold diggers and finding humanity if not intelligence in the ebullient masses that prefer cocktail lounges to nights in the library. Anyone who loves curling up with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn will be right at home in the Beckett Theater, where ‘forties movies come alive once again onstage. Alive, and even three-dimensional—in a surprisingly astonishing set piece, a giant tablecloth flies over the heads of the audience and we peek through it at a clandestine lovers’ conversation underneath a barstool.
Ms. Bacon does an excellent job with Addie’s transformation from sober condescension to ecstatic drunkenness to obnoxious drunkenness. Desperate to keep the attention on herself, she squirrels around the stage, desperately throwing her money at patrons she barely knows, stealing microphones from singers and interrupting dances to enact her own performances, but always winning us back with her mousy, nose-creased smile. Mr. Gearhart (just back from a Don Draper lookalike contest) plays the lovable dolt Paul Bishop with gentle empathy; when he talks about his dream life, full of grilling, beer, poker, and carpentry—the “pure setup for happiness”—we truly believe he will not grow dissatisfied with such suburban tedium.
“A saloon is like a movie,” says one character towards the end of Happy Birthday, and indeed, this play seems to melt away the decades that have been unkind to romantic comedies, evoking an era where cigarette smoking was a guilt-free hobby and “making love” referred to chaste kissing. “I found it highly satisfactory,” Addie declares about the aforementioned lovemaking. I cannot find any reason to disagree.