Since I enjoy Neil LaBute and had seen Reasons to be Pretty five years ago, it was a natural that I would make it to the Hampstead for his new play, Reasons to be Happy. It’s an update on the life of the four protagonists of Pretty, but something’s changed: LaBute’s energy has evaporated.
As a story, this show is almost as bland as a sitcom, but at the length of a rom com. The plebian nature of three of the protagonists – a hairdresser, a delivery driver, and a low-level manager at a “plant” – are as forward as they were before: they mock reading, worship sports, and dismiss both foreign cuisines and foreign cultures as equally weird and unnecessary. In fact, they’re so lowbrow that it’s a cause for comedy: certainly, when the one slightly educated character, Greg (Tom Burke), is asked, while holding a copy of something by Steinbeck, “Don’t you every read anything good?” the audience had a real laugh about it. I was nearly offended by LaBute’s slamming of the working class; it was barely forgivable because of his own nationality, but left me alternatingly cringing and wanting to run around apologizing to everyone in the audience.
With a bland plot interrupted by a nearly predictable surprise, we’re left primarily to enjoy the characters, who sadly suffer from LaBute’s failure to create more of a difference from the two female protagonists. Their embodiment of the nature of female friends in America is genuinely touching (as are Greg and Kent – Warren Brown – on the masculine side), but with Carly (Robyn Addison) and Steph (Lauren O’Neil) both blonde and slim, it became difficult to tell who was the violent one and who the pretty one (since this seemed to be the defining nature of each of their characters). All of the actors themselves seemed to be struggling with what to do with their characters as well, and the early scenes – late in the run – seemed clunky in a way that shouldn’t have happened if the actors really got who they were inhabiting. So … I found it uncompelling, despite the fact that the “big message” at the end of the play was one I agreed with. Overall, this seems a play well suited the Hampstead’s history of programming entertaining, unchallenging work that leave you with a few warm fuzzies but not a lot else at the end (other than the desire to pick up a few more good books).
(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday April 13, 2016. It continues through April 23rd.)