Laughter is a curious thing. It can be a kind of catharsis, a response of recognition, a defense mechanism to mask discomfort, the purest way of expressing happiness. Sometimes we laugh because it’s easier than not laughing at all, and sometimes it’s the only way to really deal with the bizarre complications life throws at us. But happiness is just as curious: It’s the ultimate state of being, the most desirable frame of mind, and yet it can also be the most frustratingly elusive.
If you see Neil LaBute’s play “Reasons to Be Happy” during its run at the Modern Theater Spokane, pay attention to when and why the audience laughs. The show does contain a few broadly comic situations, but more often than not you’ll notice people laughing in shock or disbelief. Sometimes they’re laughing as a result of uneasiness, and there are moments where laughter functions almost like a defense mechanism. It’s the only thing we have to hide behind.
LaBute’s dialogue, frank and gritty and riddled with four-letter words, alternates between explosive arguments and hushed conversations. There are often awkward silences that seem to last for eternities, so that you can really hear viewers shifting uncomfortably in their theater seats. He can be a confrontational writer, and you’re not going to walk out of any of his shows with all your questions neatly answered.
“Reasons to Be Happy” is actually a sequel to LaBute’s Tony Award-nominated 2008 play “Reasons to Be Pretty,” and it follows the same four characters several years later. “Pretty” centered on two seemingly happy couples – Greg and Steph, Kent and Carly – that LaBute put through the wringer; at the beginning of “Happy,” both couples have split up.
Greg (Ryan Shore) and Steph (Molly Tage) are trying to be civil with one another, but hostility keeps rearing its ugly head: The show opens with them having a knock-down, drag-out fight in a Trader Joe’s parking lot. Carly (Jennie Oliver) and Kent (Nich Witham) are on even worse terms, but they’re still working in the same place and have to awkwardly run into each other all the time. They have a 3-year-old daughter, but Kent rarely comes around to see her. “She looks like you,” Carly tells him, “which I hate.”
There’s yet another rift: Greg and Kent, such good friends in the first play, aren’t speaking anymore because Greg has started up a romance with Carly. And that relationship starts to show some strain when Greg’s feelings for Steph begin to resurface.
Following all of that? Not to worry, the plot isn’t nearly as complicated as a short synopsis makes it sound. The show’s director, Dawn Taylor Reinhardt (she also helmed this show’s predecessor), has done a good job of immediately and clearly establishing these relationships for anyone who didn’t see “Pretty.”
“Reasons to Be Happy” is structured like a series of blackout scenes between two characters – there are fights, reconciliations and epiphanies, sometimes all in a matter of minutes. All of these characters are at that point in life where you’re supposed to start taking things more seriously, and yet they’re all lost in a way. By the play’s end, we’ve come to understand these people perhaps better than they understand themselves.
Greg is the one character who appears in every scene, and I think that’s because LaBute considers him the most pitiable. LaBute always has been fascinated by masculinity and what it entails, and Greg’s own sense of power is constantly being questioned and threatened. If he does have a personal epiphany in the show, it’s during a discussion with Kent about intellect versus physicality: Greg’s power comes from his intelligence, Kent’s from athleticism and machismo. “Even if you do something stupid, at least you’re doing something,” Kent advises Greg, and it’d be funny if it weren’t also kind of true.
Reinhardt’s brought back her cast from “Reasons to Be Pretty,” and their familiarity with LaBute’s brand of punchy, raunchy dialogue and sometimes bleak worldview is apparent. LaBute likes to make his characters jump through hoops, and that requires actors to jump right along with them. Shore, Tage, Oliver and Witham are all up for the challenge, and “Reasons to Be Happy” boasts easily one of the best ensemble casts I’ve seen so far this year.
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