Reasons to Be Happy

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Photograph: Joan Marcus
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Reasons to Be Happy

Reasons to Be Happy. Lucille Lortel Theatre (see Off Broadway). Written and directed by Neil LaBute. With Jenna Fischer, Josh Hamilton. 2hrs 15mins. One intermission.

Reasons to Be Happy: plot synopsis

Emotional-button pusher Neil LaBute returns to his MCC Theater stomping grounds to direct his new drama, which follows up on the four central characters of his 2008 play Reasons to Be Pretty. The cast this time comprises Josh Hamilton, Fred Weller and New York stage first-timers Jenna Fischer (The Office) and Leslie Bibb.

Reasons to Be Happy: theater review

If Neil LaBute were to teach a course on playwriting, I bet his lesson plan would look something like this: “Week 1: Dumbing down characters to pad out dialogue and pump up conflict.” “Week 2: “Stringing together two-person scenes, no matter how monotonous it gets.” “Week 3: Embracing flat, shallow protagonists whose poor life choices are both predictable and banal.” And finally, “Week 12: Blasting tracks by Nirvana during changes to simulate tension and edginess.” Luckily, there is no Professor LaBute, so we’re not overrun with relationship clunkers such as Reasons to Be Happy.

This sequel to 2008’s Reasons to Be Pretty picks up three years later. Foulmouthed ignoramus Steph (Fischer) is still prone to loud, violent arguments with spineless bookworm Greg (Hamilton). But they’re not dating anymore. Greg is with Steph’s friend, beautiful single mom Carly (Leslie Bibb), who is divorced from rage-addicted alpha male Kent (Fred Weller). Steph is furious. Greg is guilty. Kent is homicidally angry. Carly is sensible—and, whoops—pregnant with Greg’s spawn, which makes things awkward because he’s being drawn back into the vile and manipulative Steph’s orbit.

Since the evening doesn’t end in gratuitious physical or emotional violence, I suppose the play should be viewed as a mature meditation on gender and ethics, but there’s very little to consider. Having authored a couple dozen plays and adaptations, and scads of one-acts, LaBute has abundant technique (he turns out fresh, highly actable dialogue by the yard), but he doesn’t have much to say. That void doesn’t stop his long-winded, boorish creations from yelling, simpering, insulting and apologizing. A wish for the future: Reasons to Be Silent.—Theater review by David Cote

Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote

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Event phone: 212-352-3101
Event website: http://mcctheater.org

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Darnell

"by creating a standardized architecture, he gives us a dramatic structure that offers the same false reassurance offered to anyone who goes through routine work days, dropping into a thoughtless groove. " Maybe, but he's still a dreadful writer. Dreadful writing is sort of what it is. There's no there there. Neil LaBute is not a very interesting writer or person. I learn and get nothing from his work. I don't mind brutal characters and I can tolerate and even embrace the darkest and most difficult work. Neil LaBute's work is just hollow, boring, shrill, and uninteresting. His remonstration against Mr. Cote is in line with the overall 'sophistication' of his work -- which is to say, it isn't.

Robert Kaplowitz

Mr. Cote: I have had the opportunity to design sound for a number of Neil's plays over the past few years. I will admit that, when I first came to his writing, I, too, didn't really see its dimensions; I also acknowledge that, to some, the brutal nature of his characters can be a turn-off. I also must acknowledge - obviously - that I have a colored opinion on this matter, as I provided the Nirvana you heard as a means "to simulate tension and edginess" (not the intention of the music, but, heck, you're the critic and of course welcome to your own responses.) I'm writing to state that it's startling and disappointing that a critic of your experience is incapable of reading beyond the surfaces of Neil's work. Yes, he has embraced a distinctively structured approach to storytelling - indeed, it would take a fool not to see his interest in 2-character scenes, in the idea (utilized in Fat Pig and in the two "Reasons" plays) of alternating public and private settings, and in the idea of characters who are one notch more capable of speaking cogently about themselves than are most humans. What I'm startled by is the fact that you can't see that these structural techniques are a tool Neil is using. For example, by creating a standardized architecture, he gives us a dramatic structure that offers the same false reassurance offered to anyone who goes through routine work days, dropping into a thoughtless groove. By imposing this theatrical version of routine, Neil, as a writer, gets to find out what happens when the needle is jarred. This gives him a chance to explore characters we think we know, both in their expected behaviors and in their startling inner truths. An example of this level of revelation, in "Reasons To Be Happy," is the layering we discover in Kent, at the edge of the Football Field in Scene 7. Fred Weller's excellent performance gives us access to the kind of guy that so many artists (especially NYC artists) tend to dismiss as a buffoon. The truth of that character is a truth to which many modern playwrights have no access. And it's a truth that couldn't be believably revealed if Kent hadn't been jarred out of the daily grind that Neil helps us understand intuitively via the structure of his writing. Of course, I'm not suggesting that you should have liked "Reasons To Be Happy." The truth is, not only don't I care whether or not you liked it, quite frankly, I don't see that as your job. As a critic, and an educated theater professional, isn't your job is to attempt to understand the work you've been paid to go see, and evaluate it for itself? What is the playwright trying to achieve? Did s/he achieve it? Did the director help or hinder? Did the actors perform in a way that landed these ideas? How about the design? Is the writer repeating themselves, or shedding new light? Do their tools work? Then, and only then, am I interested in how you, personally feel about the writer, what s/he's exploring, and whether you think it's worthy of exploration. If you can only offer highly quotable, glib dismissals of a writer whose style offends you, how are you any more helpful than a child insisting we all buy vanilla ice cream, because that's the only flavor he likes?

Darnell

Neil, I think we all know whose shadow is portly here, and it isn't David Cote's. Many, MANY people find your writing shrill and one dimensional, the queasy rantings of a hack provocateur for the boulevard set. Consider the fact that for some audiences your work isn't good or interesting. You obviously find everything you do worthy of endless honorifics and adoration, but we don't all agree.

FrankieJ

Reasons to Be Pissy, David? What a completely off-the-mark review. You're obviously not a fan of LaBute's work so why bother to go? RTBH is a mature and thoughtful piece--his best yet. We are all allowed our opinions but yours is so dismissive it feels like you have an ax to grind.