Jenna Fischer’s last day as Pam Beesley in the TV series “The Office” was her first day on an Off-Broadway stage, in what could be called a play series. She portrays Steph in Neil LaBute’s “Reasons To Be Happy,” the same character whom we first saw on the same stage at the Lucille Lortel Theater screaming at her boyfriend Greg in LaBute’s 2008 (lower-case) play “reasons to be pretty.” That play moved to Broadway the following year. This play, directed by the playwright, shouldn’t.
Steph was screaming at Greg at the beginning of “reasons to be pretty” because he called her “regular,” which she took to mean unattractive – which so angered Steph that the couple broke up.
At the beginning of “Reasons To Be Happy,” with the same four characters (played by a different cast), Steph is again screaming at Greg. But much has changed in the three years that have passed since the events in “reasons to be pretty.” Steph is now married to somebody else. Greg, who had been stuck in a dead-end job in the same oppressive factory as the other three blue-collar characters, is now a teacher. The other couple in the first play, Kent and Carly, now have a three-year-old daughter, but they have divorced and are dating other people. To Steph’s surprise and annoyance, it turns out that the man Carly is dating is Greg. That is why Steph is screaming at Greg, having accosted him in the parking lot of a Costco. She is angry for not being told, and because Carly is her best friend, which she says is “creepy and like when cousins marry.” But, as we soon discover, she is also angry because she still loves Greg and wants them to get back together.
There is something appealing about following the same characters over time. Even greatly respected theater directors like Robert Falls see television as a superior medium in that one respect, although a surprising number of playwrights do return to the same characters, even if they sometimes put them in different settings. The list includes* Horton Foote, with Horace Robedaux – modeled on Foote’s father — and his family ranging over decades in plays that were packaged into “The Orphans Home Cycle”: Richard Nelson in his Apple family series; and playwrights ranging from Neil Simon to Charles Mee to William Shakespeare.
It’s safe to say two things about “Reasons To Be Happy,” which for some reason the production is calling a “companion piece” to “reasons to be pretty” rather than a sequel: 1.You need not know anything about the first play to understand this one. 2. It might be better if you don’t know anything about the first, since the new one isn’t as satisfying.
Yes, there is the pleasure of LaBute’s caustic, quick, foul-mouthed and funny dialogue. But the characters are not as interesting this time around, the plot is driven by a series of revelations that feel forced, and much of the interaction doesn’t seem to make very much sense.
When Thomas Sadoski played Greg in the original “reasons,” he seemed credible as a man trying to keep a relationship intact and learn from his mistakes. But in the new “Reasons,” Steph harangues and berates and blames Greg so much it is difficult to understand why he would want to get back with her. A better-matched pair of actors (or a pair directed better) may have been able to suggest a smoldering passion. But Josh Hamilton as Greg just seems inexplicably passive and cruelly indecisive. He seems to have forgotten all the lessons of taking responsibility for his actions that he was supposed to have learned at the end of the first play. Fischer compares unfavorably to the actresses who played Steph in the first “Reasons.” Alison Pill portrayed Steph with a riveting explosiveness Off-Broadway; Marin Ireland added a vulnerability that made her outbursts seem motivated by hurt. Fischer offers neither the explosiveness of Alison Pill nor the vulnerability of Marin Ireland, and she doesn’t seem smitten by Greg, just constantly pissed at him. Why on earth would she leave her husband and children for a man who angers her so much? To be fair to Jenna, it’s difficult to imagine an actress who could have made the character credible without completely ignoring the text – which director LaBute of course would not have allowed. This time around, LaBute has made Steph so ignorant that she doesn’t know that Helen Keller was deaf, and has never heard of Brown University or Kurt Vonnegut. (Is this Steph the playwright’s revenge on somebody from his past?)
Leslie Bibb as the beautiful, optimistic and insecure Carly comes off the best in this lopsided triangle. She is so easy to fall in love with, it’s further mystifying why Greg would give Steph even a backwards glance. But Fred Weller gives by far the most arresting performance — sometimes comic, sometimes dangerous — as the brutish dense but desperately unraveling Kent. His role doesn’t require quite as much improbable interaction as the other three, but he does have to overcome some strained parallels: Kent too is angry, because his friend Greg is dating his ex-wife; he too considers it creepy, calling it “like, practically, incest.”
Near the end of “Reasons To Be Happy,” one of the characters is looking at a brochure of New York City. Oh no, I thought, is there going to be a “REASONS TO BE URBANE?”
“Reasons To Be Happy”
MCC Theater at Lucille Lortel
121 Christopher Street
Written and directed by Neil LaBute
Scenic design by Neil Patel, costume design by Sarah J. Holden, lighting design by Ben Stanton, sound design by Robert Kaplowitz
Cast: Leslie Bibb, Jenna Fischer, Josh Hamilton, Fred Weller
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes including one intermission
Tickets: $69 to $89
“Reasons to Be Happy” is scheduled to run through June 29
*List of playwrights who’ve used characters in more than one play compiled from a request I made on Twitter. Thanks to:
Erik Patterson (@ErikPatterson)
Kate O’Phalen @KateOPhalen
Michael Kras @KrasMagic
Jeff Kyler (@JKSTheatreScene)
Mac Rogers (@Macwrites)
Joshua Conkel (@Joshua Conkel)(@
David Lawson (@DTLawson