Reasons to be Happy promises to be great. Neil LaBute’s followup to 2008’s Reason to be Pretty revisits the same four haplessly likeable characters who populated that excoriating look at relationships and the body beautiful. Now, we’re at home with the same people a few years later and the subject is even more juicy: the very nature of happiness itself. Even the show’s programme is packed with interesting stuff about the impossibility of real social mobility and the resulting happiness-crushing identity crisis.
Designer Soutra Gilmour’s set is a shipping container. It’s a good symbol: it suggests work and druggery, confinement and departure. It’s looks so enticing but, then, there’s the blaring power-rock. Big, leather trouser-wearing, cock-waving raaawwwwk that pounds the audience’s ears, and continues to do so at every scene change. I get we’re in the Midwest where people still wear scrunchies (as does one of the characters) in their permed hair but, really, it’s got to be 2012 by now. Why are we listening to this?
The misstep would be more than forgivable if it wasn’t such a useful illustration of everything that’s disappointing about Reasons to be Happy. What could, or should, be an excavation of self-identity and the (im)possibility of change delivers little more than an unreconstructed romcom with out-of-date sexual politics. It’s just a bit stale.
In Reason to be Pretty, two couples, Greg (Tom Burke) and Steph (Lauren O’Neill), and Kent (Warren brown) and Carly (Robyn Addison), breakup. While that play lingers on nice and bookish but inert Greg, each character’s emotional life is examined and, if my memory serves me rightly, Steph and Carly get a chance to explore their own thoughts and feelings.
Not here. After a kind-of pleasing and familiarising parking lot slanging match between Greg and Steph, Reasons to be Happy descends into a love triangle revolving around the sort-of charming Greg. He’s now a supply teacher with an English degree, which, in this world, makes him irresistible to his married former girlfriend Steph and his brutish best mate’s superiorly attractive ex-wife Carly.
The plot plods around Greg’s faltering escape from his small town existence because, we’re supposed to believe, while he finds it easy enough to escape into a good book, he still seems to have trouble doing much in the real-world (apart from getting a degree and job, which is pretty big in my world and, I suspect, the Midwest) like ditch this old mates.
Indeed, the idealistic bookworm – who keeps on making ‘intellectual’ quips even though he knows they won’t be understood – haplessly drifts into two ‘traps’: Carly is up the duff, while Steph has jumped the gun and left her husband for him. Steph only wants Greg, Carly just wants to be wanted. One swears and screams a lot, the other one is the pretty one. Cumulatively they say little of any consequence other than than things that give-Greg-a-headache.
Greg wants the whole world but he also wants to be a good guy so, inevitability, what we have is a tale of exclusively male agency: what will Greg do? Can he escape the clutches of these shallow women and their small-town mentality and conquer the world? Which, along with the power-rock and uber-Bechdel-test failing, leads to the main problem: the equivocation of education with intelligence, and book learning with an emotional life.
When Kent calls Greg to a ball game to talk about boy stuff, the flimsy and contrived plot threatens to get some wind in its sails and hit it head on. Kent asks Greg if books have made him a happier, better person. Maybe he should just do something instead? It’s teetering on the brink of something good. But director Michael Attenborough can’t seem to get the thing to launch, possibly because Kent’s just been arrested for beating someone to a pulp in a jealous rage and, it turns out, Greg’s been hatching an escape to New York all along, where he plans to be actually happier. Even Attenborough’s solid, experienced direction of LaBute’s work can’t help this play wade through its quagmire of plot holes.
It’s not all bad. There are few laughs. Lauren O’Neill and Robyn Addison do a decent job of breathing something real into their frustrating characters, even when they take being tandem-dumped a bit too well. Tom Burke inhabits Greg completely and with the kind of self-effacing charm that almost makes the scenario plausible. It’s a solid cast, even when the deliberately constrained space of the workplace-cum-shipping container leaves them gasping for air to breathe into the thing, and they’re left with endless comings and goings as a substitute for action.
It’s more frustrating than disappointing when, at the end, a hint of what could be flashes before you as Steph fleetingly dreams a bit bigger – she could go to New York. Now there’s a play I’d be happy to watch.
Reasons to be Happy is on until 23rd April 2016. Click here for tickets.