06/13/2013 05:33 pm ET Updated Aug 13, 2013

Neil LaBute and John Guare Off Broadway

New plays by the eminent American playwrights Neil LaBute and John Guare are an event. In Reasons to be Happy at the Lucille Lortel Theater, LaBute, who also directs, rekindles the relationship of Greg and Steph from his 2008 Reasons to be Pretty, retooling these characters with the fine actors Josh Hamilton and Jenna Fischer. As it opens in a torrent of invectives, Steph is pissed that Greg is making it with her close friend Carly (a terrific Leslie Bibb), and Greg, still passively aggressive, unable to commit, or if able, to commit so broadly as to cancel himself out, represents a form of modern man in a condition of unmanly moral and ethical vacillation, a legacy more of Prufrock than Hemingway's adventurers. Greg hides behind books, or words, as Steph accuses. You want to scream at him too: Step up to the plate!

The choice of Josh Hamilton is an inspired bit of casting, as he has played this sort of bookish guy hiding behind intellect in Chekhov's Three Sisters and Cherry Orchard. He's reading Vonnegut's Jailbird, and Steph doesn't know who that is. On a date in a Turkish restaurant, Steph forces Greg to admit they still have that thing between them, saying "Obvious doesn't suck when it comes to love." To this production's credit, the stage is not fitted with table and chairs, but simply nicely lit and bare, choices that engage the audience's imagined view of the scene. As Kent, Carly's former husband--on their way to breaking up by the end of Reasons to be Pretty--Fred Weller is an athletic counterpoint to Greg. As with the others, he has his own issues with communication and parenting, and it is LaBute's compelling language that makes these characters and their foibles funny and completely recognizable, the dysfunctional friends next door. Ask yourself, how many plays can boast of having a "violence consultant?"

By contrast, the Atlantic Theater Company's production of John Guare's 3 Kinds of Exile, an ambitious trilogy of ideas, revolves around issues of identity. As directed by Neil Pepe, this play is an intellectual exercise and often preachy. Relying heavily on an audience's erudition, "Karel," the first short work begins with a monologue: a man (Martin Moran) who has a terrible skin rash remembers a key moment in childhood when he was separated from his parents in Eastern Europe and sent off on a train to England, never to see his family again. On board, a boy torments him, bullying him as he cries. But, who was this provocateur?

John Guare himself makes a debut dramatic presence in part 2, "Elzbieta Erased," standing beside the Polish actor Omar Sangare behind a podium. A Polish actress, Elzbieta Czyzewska, came to America, married New York Times writer David Halberstam, who was banned in Poland. In this part, a multimedia event with projections of the actress, news clips, images of Elaine Stritch, Meryl Streep who of course played a Polish woman in the movie of William Styron's Sophie's Choice, and other real-life figures, Guare lectures on this woman, whom he knew. Clearly her beauty had a profound effect on him, but more, her sense of dislocation provides a tragic dimension as she slips from history. Note to playwrights: avoid podiums in theatrical works, no matter what's happening behind them.

Part 3, "Funiage," inspired by the works of Witold Gombrowicz, evokes Kurt Weill, being the most physical and surreal of the whole, and serves as a reminder of the émigré community who made their home here after WWII, even as it takes place in South America. Exile is a potent theme to many of us but this weighted experience is best described as an essay trying hard to be theater.

A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.