If the American theater harbors a precedent for Mickle Maher‘s astonishing 2011 play There Is a Happiness That Morning Is, I’ve never found it—except, perhaps, in Maher’s other astonishing plays. For 90 intermissionless minutes, poetry professors Bernard and Ellen lecture on William Blake’s poetry. The previous evening, on the college quad, the pair got so carried away reading Blake that they stripped and made love in full view of their students and the school’s perverse, puritanical president. Now, desperate to salvage both their careers and their love, they’ve got to convince a scandalized campus community that this “public showing” of their “dew-dipped thighs” was the apotheosis of Blakean ecstasy—a teachable moment, as it were. (Ellen insists the central message of Blake’s work is simply “Fuck someone. Hard.”)
Like many of Maher’s plays, Happiness is a heady, ridiculous, deliberately static affair, whose superficial quirkiness might make it seem related to the whimsical, bookish annoyances that Sarah Ruhl and her ilk have unleashed upon American stages. But Maher’s work is never cute or gimmicky. This play demonstrates his singular ability to push a dry, intellectually rigorous academic exercise (the dialogue here is written in florid, rhyming pentameter) so far that it cracks, yielding absurd comedy and searing revelations on the transience of life and love. Theater Oobleck’s new mounting uses the same cast (Diana Slickman, Colm O’Reilly, Kirk Anderson) that appeared in the top-shelf world-premiere production two years ago, yet it’s richer, funnier, and more heartbreaking than ever.