Happiness Is…

Pearl Sun and Robert Petkoff in

What was the happiest moment of your life?

It’s a question a new musical at the Lincoln Center, appropriately titled “Happiness,” poignantly asks.

Written by the Tony-winning writer of “Assassins” and “Contact” (John Weidman), with music by the team behind “Grey Gardens” (Scott Frankel and Michael Korie), “Happiness” tells the story of nine New Yorkers stuck on a subway car. They reflect on the fondest memories of their lives, told partly through monologue, partly through flashback.

One of the trapped passengers is Neil (Robert Petkoff), a neurotic Jewish medical student. Another is Cindy (Pearl Sun), his Chinese-American girlfriend, and a fellow medical student–and calming influence. The cultural chasm between their families and cultures is a source of constant conflict.

But their fondest memory is a night spent preparing for the dual challenges of an upcoming bat mitzvah and the Chinese new year spent with Cindy’s family. They attack it in high-pressure med school style, by cramming with flash cards. Neil flashes Jewish and Hebrew terms, and Cindy answers; Cindy flashes Chinese terms and phrases, and Neil answers. At first, it’s stressful. But as they translate each succeeding phrase successfully, anxiety morphs into fun. Subtly, they realize how committed they are to each other. Why else would a Chinese woman make the effort to remember what “treif” means?

It’s a lovely scene, because it shows how interfaith and intercultural differences aren’t simply a source of stress for couples. Learning about your partner’s culture can also be an opportunity for joy, humor and yes, intimacy. Cindy and Neil share a special bond because of their cultural differences, not in spite of them.

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