(AP) Actual happiness isn't especially prevalent in Neil Labute's new play, "Reasons To Be Happy." But then, LaBute can send his plots in surprising directions, so be prepared for an avalanche of emotions to tumble out onstage.
LaBute directs his intense, funny and touching play, which is a sequel to his favorably reviewed 2008 play "reasons to be pretty." That look at an unraveling relationship also had a brief run on Broadway, receiving three 2009 Tony Award nominations, including best play.
In "Reasons To Be Happy," which opened Tuesday night at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, the prolific writer behind "Fat Pig," ''In the Company of Men" and "Your Friends & Neighbors," explores the tangled relationships and emotions between the same four characters from "reasons to be pretty." This time there's a new cast, and the characters are paired in different ways.
So after the opening scene that begins in mid-fight between Greg and Steph, it's back to the factory with the abrasively interruptive foghorn where all four formerly worked. Greg (Josh Hamilton) and his ex-girlfriend Steph (Jenna Fischer) have an explosive reunion three years after their contentious breakup. Seems Greg, now a schoolteacher has been secretly dating Steph's close friend Carly (Leslie Bibb) and although Steph is married to somebody else now, she's furious with both her friend and her ex.
Fischer is excellent at delivering Steph's profanity-laden tirades and then showing her character's vulnerability and hopefulness. Hamilton's subtle performance and air of nebbishy decency render Greg immediately sympathetic.
Although "reasons to be pretty" was about Greg learning to face the consequences of his own actions, he seems to have slid back into fence-sitting again, becoming hopelessly indecisive as he and Steph realize they still have feelings for one another.
Bibb gives a wrenching, mature performance as single-mom Carly, who unexpectedly finds herself teetering on the losing end of yet another relationship. Meanwhile, Carly's volatile, inarticulate ex-husband Kent (a comically overheated, very effective Fred Weller) is struggling with his temper and emotions following his failed marriage.
Kent's budding anger management skills are sorely tested when he finally discovers that Greg is dating his ex-wife. Needless to say, the F-bomb is hurled dozens of times throughout the dialogue, most often by Kent. Weller also gets the maximum humor out of Kent's oblivion to logic, with his earnest delivery of lines like, "even if you do something stupid... you're still doing something."
In various scenes, Greg asks each of the others if they're happy, a subject nobody is certain about except Carly. She believes she's finally happy but the audience already knows she's bound for disappointment. Eventually Greg tells Steph in bewilderment, "I want us all to be happy but I don't even know what that word means anymore!"
In following up with the lives of his earlier characters, LaBute presents another compassionate examination of the ways people struggle to connect and try to find happiness. Possibly even together. Or not. Maybe the next chapter can be called "Reasons to Be Confused."