Claire and Oliver live across from one another in a Seoul apartment building of the future, she in an efficient space with a plush pink bean-bag chair, he in a bachelor pad with a collection of vintage jazz recordings. One day, thanks to a faulty computer charger, she frantically knocks on his door, asking for a boost. Thus begins a love story, fraught with all the anxieties and complications of the heart — and one gaping conundrum.
Claire and Oliver are robots, designed to look like humans and help their owners. Like the iPhones of today, these helper-bots have been replaced by newer models — he’s a “3” and she’s a “5” — and left to live out their lives in the lonely, sterile comfort of their podlike homes.
Welcome to “Maybe Happy Ending,” the dazzling, wonderfully strange new musical by Will Aronson and Hue Park that’s having its American premiere at the Alliance Theatre. Brimming with ideas and technological inventiveness, “Maybe Happy Ending” is an oddly unsettling, wholly magical time-travel tale that looks at the clumsy mechanics and cosmic mysteries of coupling, from the point of view of a pair of cute-as-a-button androids (Cathy Ang as Claire and Kenny Tran as Oliver). Suffice it to say, Claire and Oliver are not your average musical-comedy protagonists, though their story is more electrifying than most.
First produced in Korea in 2016, the show won six Korean Musical Awards, while the English translation (seen here) received the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ 2017 Richard Rodgers Award. As directed for the Alliance by Michael Arden, who staged Broadway revivals of “Once on This Island” (2017) and “Spring Awakening” (2015), the one act for six actors seems destined to be repeated on stages far and wide.
After some two decades of reviewing theater, I don’t think I have never seen anything like it. A rare experience indeed, it’s a tale of charger-crossed lovers living on borrowed time — like fireflies in a bottle, to borrow one of the musical’s many luminous metaphors.
Oliver dreams of the day his previous owner, James, will come to reclaim him. Claire, for her part, has been disabused of romantic expectations by observing the troubled relationship of her previous owner. Though tentative and awkward at first, their love will find its course. Theirs is an episodic, cartoonlike quest, which takes them on a series of adventures involving love motels, narrative flashbacks, disparate musical genres, and the possibility of repeating it all again, via memory.
Aronson (music and book) and Park (lyrics and book) put forth a narrative that is intricately layered yet told with economy. The chamber-size piece opens with the sultry, Sinatra-esque song stylist Gil Brentley (Dez Duron) laying down a track in a recording studio — a tune that will come to haunt Oliver 100 years later. The quirky score evokes everything from “Avenue Q” and “Putnam County Spelling Bee” to Satie and Chet Baker, who you may recall made an appearance in “The Band’s Visit,” another lovely show that feels almost earthbound by comparison.
“Maybe Happy Ending” gets under your skin, coolly and clinically at first — it’s about robots inventing a language of love, after all — then poetically, rhapsodically. I must be careful not to spoil surprises, but I can say there’s considerable luster in the stagecraft.
Scenic designer Dane Laffrey takes us on a spin from that Seoul apartment building to a hushed and magical place, using a neon rectangle to suggest a car, and a single blue tube of light to evoke a lapping wave. In one scene, a human actor is in dialogue with a character who appears via flickering video, a feat that I suspect is tricky to pull off, and thus all the more mesmerizing.
Sven Ortel designed the projections, Travis Hagenbuch the lighting, Peter Hylenski the sound, Clint Ramos the costumes. Arden somehow makes it all look seamless.
With the mythic, evanescent sweep of Sarah Ruhl’s “Eurydice” and Mary Zimmerman’s “Metamorphoses,” “Maybe Happy Ending” is a tour-de-force that ends with a low-tech twist, which unless I missed my cues doesn’t seem supported by the preceding material. And yet, the point is not altogether lost. Technology isn’t always unfathomable science; some special effects are pure shadow play. But why?
And where does the machine leave off and the man begin? That’s the question that drives this spellbinding and hypnotic show — a vexing debate for the scientists, theologians and philosophers of the modern age. As far as happy endings, forget the “maybe.” I see nothing but a bright future for this deeply affecting show.
“Maybe Happy Ending”
7 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays. 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Feb. 16. $25-$85. Alliance Theatre, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-5000, alliancetheatre.org/maybe
Bottom line: A romantic thriller about the nature of love, life and memory
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