In the preface to the published edition of Reasons To Be Happy, the author, Neil LaBute opines thus:
I was recently asked by someone what Reasons To Be Happy is about. Normally, I would be tempted to follow the Samuel Beckett route and say, ‘Why ask me? I only wrote the thing…” but I don’t see how that makes me seem like anything but a smug asshole so instead I will say this: the play is not about how to be ‘happy’…I write plays and this one…is about the pursuit of happiness and how long, lonely and arduous that road can sometimes turn out to be. It can also be many other things, of course, line funny and sad and romantic and thought-provoking too…Reasons To Be Happy is about you and your neighbour and the friend from school who you’ve never been able to get out of your head…if you choose to go on this particular ride you will enjoy the journey immensely.
The self-congratulatory narcissistic tone of that extract fairly succinctly encapsulates what is wrong with both LaBute and his work. Dull, obvious and cliché ridden, LaBute’s plays are impossible to love or even grudgingly admire. They are filled with preposterous, awful people who say and do hideous things. His treatment of his female characters is excruciatingly misogynistic and none of his characters, male or female, seem real, admirable or, most egregiously, interesting.
When Reasons To Be Pretty (actually then entitled reasons to be pretty in an attempt for uber-cool lowercase modernity) was staged at the Almeida a few years ago, wags dubbed it Reasons To Be Ugly – and they were right so to do. The most admirable aspect of that production was a refreshing performance from Billie Piper but not even that could legitimise the production. One felt dirty just watching it, and not in any kind of good way.
Reasons To Be Happy continues the story of the lamentably uninteresting quartet from that first play.
Greg and Steph who broke up at the beginning of the previous play, meet outside Trader Joe’s where she berates him for starting a new relationship with her best friend Carly. This echoes the initial scene in the earlier play where Step berated Greg for different reasons. Carly and Kent, together in play one but doomed, are now separated and Kent does not pay enough attention to their daughter Jennifer. He wants Carly back though, just as it turns out Steph wants Greg back. What Greg wants…well, that is what propels the two hours of increasingly exponentially dreary dialogue.
There is nothing warm or ironic about the writing. It’s ugly and “real” and perpetuates appalling stereotypes and offensive, unjustifiable notions:
Steph: And which part am I not understanding? I heard you were fucking one of my friends, one of my best friends, one of my best childhood girlfriends, so explain to me which part of that I’m not good at understanding.
Greg: They’re calling for us…
Steph: Fuck them, they can wait. They’re Asian, they’re used to waiting…
Greg: I don’t even know what that means…
Kent: New York! Fuck! Why would you ever go there?
Greg: I dunno…It could be cool. Shut up.
Kent: Dude, people try to blow it up for a reason! I’m serious. AIDS started in that city. All kinds of shit…I don’t wan’t my kid growing up there!
Greg: Kent actually challenged me on the subject…said he thought my reading was just a waste of time; he called it ‘selfish’ and said instead I should be out doing something with my life and I though about that. Was he right? Maybe. Maybe I’ve just been selfish and not done enough…
Greg certainly has been selfish but not by spending time reading. He becomes sexually involved with both Steph and Carly at the same time, regardless of what that might mean for them. Then he decamps to New York to find himself, leaving them to pick up the pieces of their lives.
Ugly dialogue and ugly characters. The hallmarks of LaBute’s writing. Unaccountably, the first play was nominated for Best Play awards; so far, Reasons To Be Happy has not followed suit. Unsurprisingly.
It’s not particularly funny either. Yes, there are some laughs, many of which come from places as unpleasant as the underlying ideas.
However, as is so often the case, this production is far better than the play deserves.
Michael Attenborough, who seems intoxicated on LaBute cool-aid, directs proceedings with intense care, trying to shine soft light into an intellectual and emotional black-hole. The pace is good, the casting excellent and Soutra Gilmour’s efficient and many faceted set design establishes the various settings skilfully. Oliver Fenwick’s lighting and Fergus O’Hare’s sound enhances Gilmour’s intentions. Everything hangs together well in terms of look and feel.
There are uniformly excellent performances too. Warren Brown’s stage debut as Kent is finely judged, breathing life and a shred of humanity into an unfeasibly stereotypical caricature. He proves difficult to resist, infectiously charming, despite what he says and does.
Lauren O’Neil makes the most anyone could out of spiky, aggressive and controlling Steph; she employs the entire range of feminine wiles in her dealings with Greg. Robyn Addison could do with more natural warmth as Carly, but she too makes a lot out of very little. Her scenes with Greg are the most effective in the play.
Tom Burke is a terrific actor, capable of truly great work. He makes Greg way more interesting and affectionate than might be thought possible and, almost against every insinuation of LaBute’s narrative, believable. He buries the written narcissism in an intriguing web of insecurity and blooming self-awareness. But not even Burke’s undoubted skills can paper over the inherent dullness and awfulness of the character and the play.
Recently, London critics savaged Hand To God, unaccountably in my view, with one esteemed critic referring to it as drivel. Reasons To Be Happy actually is drivel, and dull drivel at that.
Disturbingly LaBute has written a third play, Reasons To Be Pretty Happy involving these same characters. Never having to see it will give me a reason to be pretty happy.