Let me begin by impressing upon you, dear reader, just how unhappy I was by the conclusion of Neil LaBute’s inept and surprisingly inert new play, Reasons to Be Happy, now playing at the Lucille Lortel Theater as part of MCC Theater’s current season. Happy, a follow-up to LaBute’s 2008 play reasons to be pretty (which also began its life at the Lortel and subsequently played on Broadway in 2009), is maddeningly naturalistic, consistently frustrating, and borderline misogynistic (that LaBute’s plays are sexist is an accusation lobbed at him in the past, deservedly or not, but rarely has the charge seemed so apt).
LaBute seems to have found capital letters sometime between pretty and Happy, but perhaps that’s not such a great thing. Happy, which features the same four characters as pretty, continues the stories of Greg, Steph, Carly, and Kent, but with less subtlety than the previous play and more Very Important Themes (capitals intended).
In his review for Time Out New York, David Cote attacked LaBute by outlining what the lesson plan should be if the playwright ever taught a course on playwriting, beginning with, “Week 1: Dumbing down characters to pad out dialogue and pump up conflict” (LaBute has now, infamously, lashed back at Cote in the comments section of the review — check it out). Cote’s right on the money in his assessment. When we rejoin our protagonist, Greg (Josh Hamilton), he’s dating security guard Carly (Leslie Bibb), who had been married to his best friend, Kent (Fred Weller). When he bumps into his ex, Steph (The Office‘s Jenna Fischer) outside of a Trader Joe’s (she’d left him to get engaged at the end of pretty), she’s chiding him for dating one of her best friends. Soon enough, nearly the same dialogue is repeated between Greg and Kent, who’s angry that he’s dating his ex. Steph and Greg claim to have some sort of vibe between them that works when it works, but we never get to see it working — we only get to see her pick at him — and Steph as a character is rendered as so unintelligent (she has difficulty conjuring the name Martin Luther King from within her cultural consciousness and doesn’t know what it means to be “dumb,” as in unable to speak) as to become a mere cartoon of braying femininity, a fraction of a human being.
While Greg’s relationship with Carly seems to work somewhat better (Bibb’s performance here is quietly moving), it’s impossible for Greg to keep up his good behavior. Soon enough, Steph is trying to lure him back into a relationship and — surprise, surprise — he’s chomping at the bit for Round Two. The rest of the play’s two-plus hours are spent agonizingly chronicling the emotionally stunted Greg’s inability to choose between two beautiful women, both of whom he loves in different ways. When biology comes into play in his relationship with one of the two, the dynamics change and things get complicated. Greg, who’s tarted up as a pseudo-intellectual through LaBute’s constant references to how many books he reads, is built up as our affable antihero, but, judging by the sniggers of indignation of audience members around me the night I attended, his griping and whining throughout wear thin long before the play’s conclusion.
As an example of naturalism, Reasons to Be Happy features some strong dialogue in places, the problem being that many of the situations here are so mundane as to make one question the need to dramatize them. The stakes start out low and their eventual escalation feels more anticlimactic than dramatically significant.
Though Josh Hamilton turns in a textured performance as Greg and Leslie Bibb shines as Carly, Fred Willer grates as macho Kent, putting on a stereotypically douche-y voice that grates more so than it adds to his character, and Jenna Fischer seems somewhat uncomfortable onstage despite giving it her best effort.
That LaBute directed his own play (and brashly, loudly so) seems only to have reinforced his poor writing choices, whereas a defter director might have prodded the playwright out of his clouded mire (Terry Kinney certainly did a fine job with pretty in 2008-2009). At one point in the play’s final scene, where Greg has assembled both of his possible love-objects for a powwow in the break room of the factory he used to work in (and where Carly still works), Greg exclaims, “that’s why I asked you guys to meet me here! Because it’s so symbolic of who I might’ve been…or eneded [sic] up being.” By this point, I’d basically lost any and all hope for LaBute’s clumsy, hit-you-over-the-head drama of too-real real life. This line right here — with its blatent obviousness, and in some ways its nonsensicalness (half of the play took place in the selfsame “symbolic” break room) — is a symbol for why I hated Neil LaBute’s Reasons to Be Happy so much and part of the reason it made me so damn sad.