Josh Hamilton and Jenna Fischer in <i>Reasons to Be Happy</i>
Josh Hamilton and Jenna Fischer in Reasons to Be Happy
(© Joan Marcus)
Steph is still screaming and cursing like a truck driver. Greg is still trying to please other people. Kent still has a hair-trigger temper. And Carly still wants to be loved — and not just because she's beautiful. Even though four years have passed since the end of Neil LaBute's Reasons to Be Pretty, it appears little has changed for these troubled souls at the beginning of LaBute's sequel, Reasons to Be Happy, now being presented by MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. Yet, we soon find ourselves hoping that the title of LaBute's work lives up to the implied promise that these characters will quickly discover some sort of inner peace.

Naturally, some things are not the same as before: Most notably, Greg (Josh Hamilton), now a substitute teacher, is dating former friend Carly (Leslie Bibb), still enmeshed in her same security-guard job. The news, which the couple has kept secret, doesn't sit well with exes Steph (Jenna Fischer) and Kent (Frederick Weller), even though both have moved on to new partners. Still, given the constant self-doubt that plagues this quarrelsome quartet, it's hardly surprising that everyone — even the none-too-bright Kent — keeps wondering whether they've done the right thing.

So it's not exactly shocking that Steph decides to leave her husband, Tim, for a chance to reunite with Greg after one brief conversation — (and despite the couple's extremely stormy past). Or that even after an unseen complication in his relationship with Carly, Greg makes a bigger mess by evading his responsibility to both women. And Kent once again fails to control his violent nature, leading to a potentially life-changing situation. Yet as much as we want to judge these people for their failures, and may believe LaBute wants us to do so, one suspects Kent is actually voicing LaBute's ultimate message when he tells Greg: "Sometimes you gotta just do something, you know. Not talk about it or…like think it to death."

How well Reasons to Be Happy fully resonates to those theatergoers who didn't see the previous play is a question I can't honestly answer. I will say that LaBute (who also directs here) has created a story that can be taken on its own merits. However, its central love triangle is somewhat problematic, especially for those with no knowledge of the characters' backstory. Fischer's rough-tongued, unlikeable Steph not only lacks vulnerability, but we get too little sense this time of how much her volatile behavior is based on an insecurity about her physical appearance. Conversely, the excellent Bibb is so warm as Carly (originally portrayed with a harder edge by Piper Perabo), it can be hard to understand why Kent ever abandoned her (and their daughter) or why Greg refuses to commit.

In addition, for those who saw Reasons to Be Pretty in either its Broadway or Off-Broadway incarnation, it can be extremely difficult to erase the memory of Thomas Sadoski's superb portrayal of Greg. However, the appealing Hamilton does bring his own lost-boy charm to the role, making him a believable object of affection for both women. Best of all is the uber-buff Weller, who hits all the right tragicomic notes as Kent. Sure, sometimes you want to smack him — like when he constantly disparages Greg with unwarranted homophobic slurs — but you also feel his deep-in-the-soul pain. Weller's performance is the chief reason that makes Reasons to Be Happy recommended viewing.