Dark humor bleeds into harrowing bleakness in Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s ironically titled The World of Extreme Happiness, presented Off-Broadway by Manhattan Theatre Club in a co-production with the Goodman Theatre. Set in contemporary China, the provocative work examines the plight of that country’s exploited labor class against a background of repressive government tactics.
The opening scene of the play strikes a farcical note as a pair of foul-mouthed coal miners in rural China discuss pigeons and whores, while a woman gives birth in a small hut. Once it is discovered that the baby is not the boy the parents desired, the unwanted daughter is dumped into a slop bucket. Director Eric Ting mitigates the horror of the situation by having his actors keep a lighthearted tone that establishes some theatrical distance from what is being depicted. The child’s father, Li Han (James Saito), changes his mind about letting the girl die once he sees her smiling, and instead names her Sunny.
The action soon shifts to a factory in Shenzhen in 2011 where a now 18-year-old Sunny (Jennifer Lim) works as a janitor. The playwright continues to employ humor to offset the more serious subject matter introduced, which includes a rash of employee suicides, a clandestine organized labor movement, and class divisions that denigrate workers like Sunny who come from the countryside in hopes of making more money and rising in stature by moving to the city. It is this quest for upward mobility that causes Sunny to bond with Ming-Ming (Jo Mei), a fellow worker determined to change her social status by dyeing her hair, dressing for success, and repeating self-help mantras to build up her confidence.
While the struggle of this underclass of laborers is the primary focus of the play, Cowhig also explores China’s crackdown on political dissidents. This includes the long-term effects it has had on relatives of those killed for their counter-revolutionary actions, such as the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square.
Lim provides a moving performance as Sunny, demonstrating the character’s increasing confidence, which at times comes through subtle shifts and at other moments grows in leaps and bounds. The actress is especially effective in the play’s closing scene as she conveys—in near wordless fashion—the tragic consequences that result from a speech she makes in the Great Hall of the People, a venue historically loaded with political significance.
Francis Jue is pitch-perfect in his primary role of Old Lao, Sunny’s supervisor at the factory. He delivers the play’s most impacting speech, which shows the continuity between Mao’s policies in the 1950s and 1960s and its debilitating effects for the Chinese peasantry of today.
Saito doesn’t quite convey the depths of emotion that seem to be required during a scene in which Sunny enacts a grim revenge for how her father treats her. However, a later scene, spoken into a camera with the image projected in close-up behind him, is infused with a nuanced despair. The clean-cut and charismatic Telly Leung seems somewhat miscast as Sunny’s younger brother Pete, who is targeted by city kids for his peasant status. But that doesn’t diminish the power of the character’s actions in the play’s final scene.
Mei projects cool efficiency as a government official and is alternately hilarious and pitiful as the misguided Ming-Ming. Sue Jin Song is at her strongest in the role of Artemis Chang, a woman who has successfully overcome an impoverished background to become a powerful business executive, only to be reminded that this does not put her beyond the reach of China’s authoritarian regime.
A recurring motif within the play is the story of the Monkey King from the Chinese classic Journey to the West. This mythological trickster was well known for his ability to undergo magical transformations. But as Pete observes, the Monkey King always reverted back to himself. In Extreme Happiness, Cowhig seems to be grappling with the question of whether or not it is possible to achieve lasting change, as well as contemplating the personal costs of making the attempt.
The World of Extreme Happiness is a co-production of Manhattan Theatre Club and Goodman Theatre, presented at New York City Center Stage 1 (131 West 55th Street) through March 29. Schedule varies. All tickets are $85. To purchase, call 212-581-1212 or visit www.nycitycenter.org. For more information, visit www.theworldofextremehappiness.com.