Neil LaBute’s Reasons to be Happy, the companion piece to his critically acclaimed, 2009-Tony nominated reasons to be pretty, which Overlook published earlier this month, premiered this week to rave reviews at New York’s Lucille Lortel Theatre. Ben Brantley of The New York Times hailed it as “what may be the most winning romantic comedy of the summer” and Variety praised LaBute’s “astonishing command of the sharp side of the mother tongue.” Directed by LaBute and starring Jenna Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Leslie Bibb, and Fred Weller, Reasons to be Happy runs in New York through June 29th.
“Same Couples, Reshuffled by a Mellowing Playwright”
Ben Brantley, The New York Times
You don’t always know how much you’ve missed certain people until they show up in your life again. When Steph started bawling out Greg the other night, and rushing him as if he were a tackling dummy, I felt an oddly comforting warmth. “Oh, you two,” I said to myself, grinning. “You haven’t grown up at all.”
That show began with Steph (Marin Ireland) delivering a very loud, very obscene stream of invective at Greg (Thomas Sadoski). That’s how Mr. LaBute’s latest work, which opened on Tuesday night at the Lucille Lortel Theater in an MCC Theater production, starts off, too, though Steph and Greg are now portrayed by Jenna Fischer (of “The Office”) and Josh Hamilton.
The new play is called “Reasons to Be Happy.” And it would seem that in addition to coming to terms with capital letters, Mr. LaBute is more relaxed as a playwright than he’s ever been. He is clearly having a good time revisiting old friends. And, with Mr. LaBute directing a dynamite cast rounded out by Fred Weller and Leslie Bibb, you’re likely to feel the same way.
Yep, a man best known as a snarling misanthrope has come up with what may be the most winning romantic comedy of the summer, replete with love talk, LaBute-style, which isn’t so far from hate talk. One sweet and angry example: “I haven’t stopped thinking about you since you smashed my ice cream sandwiches into the pavement.”
Successful sequels by major dramatists are rarities. (I’m talking modern plays here; let’s not go near Shakespeare and the ancient Greeks, please.) Mostly, writers apparently feel that when their plays are over, the characters within them have had their say.
That Mr. LaBute chose to take up again with Greg and Steph, and their friends Kent and Carly (played here by Mr. Weller and Ms. Bibb), seems perfectly natural when you think about it, though. In other works — from the early “Bash: Latter Day Plays” to the more recent “Break of Noon” — Mr. LaBute has been a hit-and-run author, scoring points off morally dubious characters before finally blowing them into smithereens with a nasty surprise clincher.
In contrast, “reasons to be pretty” was about eternally unfinished business. It suggested that though couples may break up, and friends stop speaking, those relationships never really cease. Don’t you have someone who’s been out of your life for a long time with whom you still conduct conversations in your head?
You can bet that’s been true for Greg and Steph (who ended a four-year relationship at the beginning of “reasons to be pretty”), and for Kent and Carly (who were destined to split by the end of the same play). And Mr. LaBute, who it seems can be a loving as well as vengeful god to his fictional creations, has offered them the chance to talk in person once more.
I am happy to report that they are as articulately inarticulate, and as enlighteningly in the dark as ever. So don’t expect any kind of closure when this play ends, either.
Then, as now, these characters are still coming of age. In the case of Greg, who must be well into his 30s by now, it’s hard to distinguish that from an early-onset midlife crisis. As Steph comments, his idea of clarity is “pretty much like the consistency of mud.” And as written by Mr. LaBute, and portrayed with wonderfully cloudy spontaneity by Mr. Hamilton, Greg turns every decision into a murky maze of vacillation. He can’t even make it to the end of a sentence before turning a corner into another point of view.
It’s a pretty daunting vista he faces. Though Steph is now married to another man, she tracks down Greg when she hears he is dating the gorgeous Carly, a single mom and security guard, who is now divorced from Kent, who was Greg’s best friend before he blew the whistle on Kent’s extramarital pursuits. As Kent says to Greg (about Greg’s dating Carly), “That’s like practically incest, dude.”
That’s what Steph thinks, too. She also thinks maybe she and Greg should get back together. Still, Greg and Carly are making a real go of it, even though Kent would love to have Carly back, despite his new relationship with a never-seen knockout named Crystal.
Everyone is struggling to see straight through all the soap opera bubbles. Even the quick-tempered Kent says he’s been “doing a lot of work on me as a person.” Don’t be too quick to laugh at Kent. He has some pretty damning insights into Greg, the self-taught intellectual of the bunch, who reads books and uses big words.
Working with a design team that includes Neil Patel (sets) and Robert Kaplowitz (sound), Mr. LaBute finds a mortal urgency within this romantic pretzel. Buzzers and ringtones keep going off, subliminal reminders of life’s built-in deadlines, which loom ever closer for these no-longer-young people.
Every cast member shapes a thoroughly individual portrait of ambivalence, from Ms. Bibb’s glowing openness to Ms. Fischer’s hair-trigger combativeness (quite a contrast to her more passive Pam on “The Office”). The chemistry is so organic that you understand why their characters need to be together and as far away from one another as possible.
Is another reunion in their future? If the filmmaker Richard Linklater can keep resurrecting the on-and-off-again lovers played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in his “Before...” series of movies, Mr. LaBute should surely be allowed to bring these contentious friends and lovers back again and again. I’m looking forward to “Reasons to Be Retiring,” though I seriously doubt that a geriatric Greg will have figured himself out by then.
Reasons to Be Happy
Written and directed by Neil LaBute; sets by Neil Patel; costumes by Sarah J. Holden; lighting by Ben Stanton; sound by Robert Kaplowitz; production stage manager, Joel Rosen; production manager, B. D. White; general manager, Pamela Adams. Presented by MCC Theater, Robert LuPone, Bernard Telsey and William Cantler, artistic directors; Blake West, executive director. At the Lucille Lortel Theater, 121 Christopher Street, West Village, (212) 352-3101, mcctheater.org. Through June 29. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes.
WITH: Leslie Bibb (Carly), Jenna Fischer (Steph), Josh Hamilton (Greg) and Fred Weller (Kent).