New play written and directed by Neil LaBute makes insightful return to 'Pretty' characters
It’s payback time for the “regular” looking girls whose boyfriends humiliated them for being insufficiently gorgeous in Neil LaBute’s 2008 play, “Reasons to Be Pretty.” The same gang returns in “Reasons to Be Happy” to further screw up their relationships. These working-class characters are in fine, foul-mouthed voice, thanks to the scribe’s astonishing command of the sharp side of the mother tongue. But this time the women stand up for themselves and give as good as they get. Theaters with the right aud demographic could give subscribers a reason to be happy by mounting both plays in rep.
Three years have gone by since we left the four friends and sometime lovers from “Reasons to Be Pretty” stuck in their dead-end jobs and no-hope lives in some dreary suburb in some unidentified part of the country. Without being unkind or sentimental, LaBute delivers a painfully realistic group portrait of people who go directly from high school into jobs at the small plants and big box stores at the local mall (settings roughly outlined by Neil Patel) where they soon become locked into the rituals of local life.
The backstory deftly updates us on who got married, who got dumped, who had a baby, and who still wants to get it on with whom. Here’s how things shape up at the moment: Steph (Jenna Fischer, from “The Office”) is married, but still pining for Greg (Josh Hamilton, last seen on Broadway in “Dead Accounts”), who has something going with Steph’s best friend Carly (Leslie Bibb, from “GCB”), who has no idea that her ex, Kent (Fred Weller, a Broadway player in “Take Me Out”), is still pining for her.
LaBute, who is directing his own baby here, does an even-handed job of giving each of these characters his/her moment under the bright lights that come courtesy of Ben Stanton.
Fischer really tears into the state-of-the-art tantrum that Steph delivers at the top of the show when she finds out that her ex-boyfriend has taken up with her best friend. Steph is no brainiac, but she hits on the perfect comeback for Greg’s sophistic arguments excusing his boorish behavior. Her furious attack on “you and your fucking words!” goes to the heart of Greg’s passive-aggressive fighting style. (This extended aria, which contains dozens of variants on the root-word “fuck,” is a prime example of the scribe’s distinctively raw and utterly natural voice.)
Shrugging off the persona of the smart and sensitive deputy marshal he plays in “In Plain Sight,” Weller stands his comic ground and turns some droll deadpan humor on Kent, the pumped-up jock who’s fighting a losing battle with his anger issues. ”I’ve been working on my temper,” he tells Greg, explaining why he didn’t actually kill some guy he beat to a pulp.
Bibb has a more passive role to play as Carly, but she has her moment when that sweetheart character turns on Greg and calls him on his self-centered way of using people and then discarding them when he’s ready to move on. ”You wanna find yourself,” she says sadly, making his excuses for leaving her sound like the whining of a petulant child.
Despite presenting itself as an ensemble piece, this show belongs to Greg, the would-be intellectual who wants to escape from his small town with its limited life cycle of finding a job, getting married, having children, meeting friends at the mall and cheering for the home team at high school football games. But there’s also a boyish side to Greg that’s afraid to leave it all behind, which is why he can’t quite get away from Steph.
Hamilton, whose winning personality saves this troublesome character, wisely goes for the air of sweet confusion that takes the edge off Greg’s egotism. Thesp is particularly appealing when, in a moment of candor, Greg practically comes out and admits that he wants to leave his provincial hometown so he doesn’t turn into a loser like his friends.
That’s pretty much the same conflict he had in “Reasons to Be Pretty,” but this time his friends don’t let him off so easily. Steph and Carly individually and jointly reproach him for stringing them both along. Even Kent gathers his wits and recognizes the selfish impulses behind Greg’s claims on happiness and his insensitivity to anyone else’s feelings but his own.
That’s a lot for a narcissist like Greg to take in, let alone deal with. But like his author, his friends are forgiving. So that should be good enough for the rest of us — for now.