06/12/2013 07:59 pm ET Updated Aug 12, 2013

First Nighter: Neil LaBute's "Reasons to Be Happy" Will Make You Happy

When Ben Stanton's lights flash up at the Lucille Lortel on Neil LaBute's Reasons to Be Happy, ex-lovers Steph (Jenna Fischer) and Greg (Josh Hamilton) are in a Trader Joe's parking lot and at each other's throat.
I suppose I should say they're verbally lacerating each other yet again, because when LaBute's Reasons to Be Pretty opened in 2009 (also at the Lucille Lortel before making the big move to Broadway), Steph--then played by Marin Ireland--and Greg--then played by Thomas Sadoski--were also ripping new ones for each other.
Yes indeed, LaBute fans, our favorite purveyor of the contemporary war between the sexes is at it again. In the prior work, Greg was hearing it from Steph as a result of his mentioning to friend Kent (now Fred Weller, then Steven Pasquale, currently in Far From Heaven) that he didn't consider Steph to be pretty.
Now the fractured bone of contention is Greg's seriously dating Steph's best friend and Kent's ex-wife Carly (now Leslie Bibb, then Piper Perabo, currently a luscious FBI agent in USA's Covert Affairs). Due to their shared sense of betrayal--whether or not valid--Steph doesn't like the new pairing-off, and neither does Kent.
You could say there are two overriding ways to look at Reasons to be Happy. The first is to consider it LaBute repeating himself and not just after the series of snarling confrontations in Reasons to Be Pretty but from his entire oeuvre, plays as well as films.
Or you could say of the second view that he's zeroed in on a thematic mother lode and is intent on mining it from as many angles as he can. You could say he whole-heartedly supports the Women-From-Venus-Men-From-Mars notion that the Venusians are the true realists and the Martians are the drifting romantics.
I'd have to admit that with Reasons to Be Happy, he's convinced me. As it unfolds in two acts and many heated scenes--half of them in the same factory snack room featured in RtBP--he focuses even more pointedly on Greg. He's an educated fellow longing for a good teaching position whose theme song--if he had one--would be something from Stephen Sondheim's ambivalence canon or, better yet, the Lovin' Spoonful's "Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?"
That's precisely what Greg can't do. Should he reunite with Steph, whose fury is confirmation that people get angriest at the one they love most? Or should he continue his affair with Carly, whom he impregnates while endlessly either-oring-neither-noring around? The addled Greg--sympathetic in RtBP, less now--is so indecisive that late in the thin plot (this is a character study, a characters study), he hesitates in frustration before choosing to eat a discarded roll or throw it in a handy bin. His conclusion is to do neither but instead to hurl it at the floor.
LaBute's triumph here is that--while the many individual one-on-ones may be a trifle overextended and there may be a few more of them than absolutely necessary--they're always electric with life. He also has a terrific way of demonstrating that even in their direst spoken punches--there are physical wallops as well--fighting lovers are hilarious. At one of their initial vocal peaks, Greg tells Steph, "Helen Keller could hear you." Her reply? "Who?"
The sequences are so sufficiently pithy--and sufficiently pissy--that there's no real need to single out one. Certainly, the Greg-Steph and Greg-Carly exchanges--and the one where Greg awkwardly asks both dangling women to meet him--inexorably daub the picture of a man severely damaging himself and the two people who've come to mean everything to him. (The only significant others mentioned are unseen Tim, whom Steph throws over to return to Greg, and unseen Jennifer, Carly's and Kent's three year-old daughter.)
And then there's a late scene where Kent, up until then resentful of Greg's liaison with Carly, asks for a meeting where he expects to ask for advice. His barely assuaged resentment flares, though, and in the process Kent challenges Greg's constant reading--claiming that reading is not doing. Kent's closing shot--"Even if you do something stupid, you're still doing something"--gets Greg thinking.
Not many dramatists who insist on directing their own plays are able to do it well, but LaBute is among their small number. (His not choosing to edit where editing might help is a not atypical playwright-director situation.) His guidance of the battling foursome is completely convincing--the pauses, the stumbling over words and thoughts, the conflicted emotions.
Throughout, the Hamilton-Fischer-Weller-Bibb playing is right on the (pushed) button. Hamilton's chronic vacillations, the raspy hemming-and-hawing is beautifully riling. Fischer, popular with crowds after her years on The Office, does extremely well by the decibel-rollercoastering Steph. Weller's anxiety is so intense that there are times when the cords on his neck bulge ominously. Bibb as Carly, who's constantly discussed for her beauty, understands and conveys a good-looking young woman's uncertainty about herself.
Not incidentally, Reasons to Be Happy--"I want to get through to happy," Greg pleads--has a deliberately inconclusive ending. LaBute obviously wants to continue stalking Greg, Steph, Carly and Kent. Since the affable playwright is so prolific, he may have already written his sequel--no, make that his three-quel. The obvious question is, what will he call it? Reasons to Be __________ (you have fun filling in the blank).