Under His Thumb

People who are a little smart and a lot insecure love to associate with lesser minds.  They will make allusions with the sole intention of being asked to explain them and they will quietly correct others’ mistakes—only doing so quietly so they can repeat the corrections louder, all the while pretending it’s no big deal.  They use their intelligence as a weapon, even though the kind of fights they engage in are less like battles and more like poking unarmed children with forks.

Neil LaBute, I suspect, is this kind of intellectual fraud; he certainly enjoys writing them.  When we first meet the star of Reasons to Be Happy, Greg (Josh Hamilton), he is wearing a Sun Also Rises t-shirt so that everybody knows he’s a literary type.  His ex-girlfriend, Steph (Jenna Fischer), is perfect for him, since she doesn’t know that Helen Keller was deaf and that there is only one Straight of Gibraltar.  In fact, it takes her a minute to remember the name of Martin Luther King, even though he is probably the most famous American of the twentieth century.  His buddy, Kent (Fred Weller), thinks books are “gay,” though his current girlfriend, Carly (Leslie Bibb), isn’t so great; instead of yelling at him for his superiority (“You and your fucking words,” shrieks Steph in the first scene), she actually expects him to treat her like an equal.  The play that ensues, in which Steph and Carly each fight to be in a relationship with this self-obsessed loser, is a sickening, narcissistic male fantasy.

Those who like Mr. LaBute—largely freshman acting students who still get a kick out of swearing in public—insist that he has a great ear for dialogue and that he accurately dissects gender relations and issues of masculinity.  This sounds to me like David Mamet, who has penned his share of vicious misogynists, whereas Mr. LaBute is more like one of those vicious misogynists turned playwright.  Both Steph and Carly are pathetic, unrealistic women; how could anyone be Greg’s friend, let alone his lover?  Anytime he is asked anything, he stammers and stumbles his way through a non-answer, infuriating both those around him as well as the audience.  And when he finally cannot equivocate his way out of his situation, he asks, half-seriously, if both women will move with him to New York, not realizing their lives do not entirely consist of aiding his personal improvement projects.  Kent, of course, hates the idea, claiming, “People try [sic] to blow it up for a reason,” because, of course, there’s no quicker and cheaper way to ingratiate yourself with a Manhattan crowd than to have some hick trash our city.

On June 25, Gloria Steinem will lead a talkback after a performance of Holland Taylor’s Ann.  In an ideal world, she would instead be at the Lucille Lortel Theater, challenging Mr. LaBute to defend this vile garbage.

Reasons to Be Happy runs through June 29th at the Lucille Lortel Theater.  121 Christopher Street  New York, NY.  2 hours 10 minutes.  One intermission.

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Aaron Botwick

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