A box of ice cream sandwiches suffers a vicious assault in Neil LaBute’s Reasons to Be Happy, produced by MCC. As does a vending machine, a sports trophy, a microwave, a purse, and a cinnamon roll. Does LaBute hate inanimate objects? Possibly. But he reserves plenty of violence for his human characters, too.
A sequel of sorts to Reasons to Be Pretty, LaBute’s 2008 play, Reasons to Be Happy catches up with the same quartet—Greg, Steph, Carly, Kent—a few years later. These characters, however, did not seem to demand a return engagement, especially given that LaBute had ended that earlier play on an unexpectedly mature note, as welcome as it was surprising.
Watching his ex, Steph, walk down the aisle, Greg (played then by Thomas Sadoski) regretted his past choices and contemplated new ones, claiming “the honest thing about this is, I think I’m a better man now.” When Sadoski said it, you believed it, and this final speech further promised that LaBute was now prepared to put away earlier provocations (once shocking, now shopworn) and move on to a more sophisticated understanding of character and relationships.
Not so much. The stark set and lighting design of Reasons to Be Happy, which LaBute directs, resembles that of many earlier pieces. So does the tendency to blare dated indie rock—here, Nirvana. (“Come as you are/As you were.” Indeed.) Perhaps the choice of music indicates his characters’ inability to move beyond adolescent fixations, but surely they’ve updated their playlists at some time in the past 20 years. Or maybe not. Greg (Josh Hamilton) does refer to “mixtapes.”
Kent (Fred Weller) may say, “I have been doing a lot of work on me as a person.” Steph (Jenna Fischer) may claim, “I’ve been trying to deal with things.” It doesn’t show. This play even begins as the last one did, with Steph hurling insults and punches at a cowed Greg.
Greg has undergone a few alterations. He’s left his job as a factory grunt and earned a teaching certificate. But he’s as emotionally stunted as ever, unable to choose between rekindling a relationship with Steph or continuing one with Carly (Leslie Bibb), the ex-wife of his ex-bestie. The scene in which he confronts them should be wrenching and funny. Instead, it’s Ibsen-lite. With F-bombs.
Mr. LaBute may be a less able director than Terry Kinney, who helmed the earlier show, or he may have cast less skilled actresses. Certainly, neither Fischer nor Bibb can fully illuminate the woman she plays. The men fare better, with Hamilton exploiting his puppyish indolence for comedic effect, and Weller bringing unexpected poignancy to the antagonistic Kent, impressive considering that LaBute remains as contemptuous as ever of his characters’ stupidity.
The play ends with one person planning to embark on a new life and one more contemplating such a change. But it’s hard to believe. As Greg says in the closing scene, “I decided to change my life and, you know, I have. Sort of.” Or really not at all. Beyond the exchange of coveralls for a tweed jacket, Greg hasn’t changed. And neither has LaBute.