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Reasons to Be Happy

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Reasons to Be Happy
Josh Hamilton and Jenna Fischer.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

At the end of reasons to be pretty, Neil LaBute’s deft 2008 look at different concepts of self-image in contemporary America, a faltering young man named Greg gave the figurative and literal finger to a universe that was dictating a life very much at odds with the one he wanted to live. After splitting from his long-term girlfriend, Steph, over a comment that was innocuous to him but offensive to her, he somehow managed to stow the last remnants of his childishness and — gasp — grow up.

So it’s a bit of a shock that that play’s sequel, Reasons to Be Happy, which just opened at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in an MCC production under LaBute’s own direction, is about Greg stowing the last remnants of his childishness and — huh? — growing up.

That, alas, is not much of an exaggeration. Though four years have passed since Greg and Steph (here played by Josh Hamilton and Jenna Fischer) reached an emotional agreement and amicably went their separate ways, a chance run-in between the two at a grocery store nearly turns violent when she blasts him (and stomps on his ice cream sandwiches) for dating her best friend, Carly. Greg may have learned many things since turning his back on manual labor to bury himself in books, but saying no to Steph has apparently not been one of them.

This, more than anything else, comes back to haunt Greg as the evening unfolds. Carly (Leslie Bibb) is ready to take their relationship to the next level, but Greg is still haunted by Steph — a condition that doesn’t ease when he begins seeing her again regularly. Before long, he’s stuck with having to choose between them, and special circumstances with each that make the decision even more difficult only place more pressure on the already put-upon Greg. It doesn’t take him — or us — long to discover that, before he can know who he wants, he first has to figure out who he is.

Ultimately, the same thing is true of Reasons to Be Happy. Looked at on its own terms, this is a fine, if safe, LaBute work: bracing, if less than absolutely lacerating, in its excavation of the male mind and the catastrophic effects the desire for women can have on it. And it explores the meaning of personal satisfaction with an ingratiating, and at times even endearing, attitude that reminds how what matters most to you may not always be what you think it is. You may struggle to find or understand it or, like Greg’s utterly unrepressed friend Kent (Fred Weller), you may pursue it to the exclusion of all else, but it’s in the attempt that success — whatever that may be — is invariably found.

Though the choices facing all four characters are not especially complex, LaBute masterfully integrates enough of their own neuroses and misgivings into them make them resemble immovable obstacles they can so frequently resemble in real life. This is never more evident than as we follow Greg as he moves between the two women, trying to decide which of them is his perfect fit, and we slowly conclude that he may be even more mismatched than they. Throughout, however, LaBute never absolves them of responsibility for their actions — or the frequently devastating consequences thereof.

Unfortunately, none of this is new territory. reasons to be pretty did all this, if with slightly different emphases, and if you have experienced it on either the page or the stage you must discount, and preferably outright ignore, the journey it documents for this go-around to seem fresh. If you can't do that, if you take LaBute at face value that what you're now seeing represents the second act of Greg's as-yet-unfinished story, it's unnerving, unconvincing, and unnecessary.

Reasons to Be Happy
Leslie Bibb and Fred Weller.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Both Greg and Steph are less vibrant here: His vaguely elitist air and her accentuated naïveté register as baser and more banal personality traits unsuited for the complications of everyday life as LaBute has conceived it, to say nothing of a healthy partnership (with each other or anyone else). But the problems run deeper still, with neither Steph's marriage nor her reacquired affection for Greg believable outgrowths of their tenuous union, and Kent's role in Greg's life being refashioned from a destructive to an instructive one, without any sign that the character has learned how to make that leap himself. (For that matter, there's little clue here that Greg's "exorcising" Kent's influence, the exciting fistfight climax of the previous play, ever happened.) Everything together adds up to a play that, well, doesn't add up.

The cast, it should be noted, is completely blameless here. They fill out their roles admirably, with Hamilton especially good at striking the notes of considered confusion that are so central to Greg. You sense with him, as you have to, that this is a man who’s constantly grasping onto life by his fingers, trying to stop it from bypassing him completely. Fischer reads as too attractive and secure for a Steph who's always depended on the edification of others, but her portrayal is a committed and passionate one that provides just the right foil for Greg’s stupor of uncertainty.

Weller beautifully balances Kent’s brutish lack of intellectual curiosity with the natural, sage-like command of the id that's all that distinguish him from Greg. Bibb bears an astonishing resemblance to Piper Perabo, who originated the role of Carly five years ago, but is even better at unlocking this woman's confliction about being trapped within the obsessions of two men who could not view their roles in the world more differently.

LaBute’s direction is spot on: like his dialogue, but it's bruising, breakneck, and unforgiving in its refusal to let any of these people escape from the cages of their own creation. It finds a perfect partner, too, in Neil Patel’s set, which cagily blends an indistinct dreaminess of some locales (the store, a school, a restaurant) with the matter-of-fact naturalism of the department store warehouse backroom that represents the institutional-grey reality that oppresses everyone who ever passes through it.

If you don’t know that Greg already has and emerged intact — or if you’re willing to overlook that small detail — then you’ll get a clear-eyed look at exactly why that is so important for an individual’s spirit and the greater society. But seen as part of a longer continuum, the only real takeaway is that Greg isn’t smart enough to learn anything, even when the lessons are shoved in his face. That works against LaBute’s standing point, in both the first play and this one, that even the most clueless of men possess the strength to make such sweeping changes. Thus Reasons to Be Happy is full of more than its fair share of reasons to be disappointed.


Reasons to Be Happy
Through June 29
Lucille Lortel Theater, 121 Christopher Street between Bleecker and Bedford Streets
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: mcctheater.org