Costco, the giant chain of warehouse stores, is known for paying slightly higher hourly wages than its competitors. Thus a job at Costco is generally considered a good job, even a way, perhaps, to gain a tentative foothold in the middle class.
In 2009 Neil LaBute wrote a play called "Reasons to be Pretty," which was set in and around Costco; a close reading of the script suggests one of the branches in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. I caught the show on Broadway (an excellent and underrated production from director Terry Kinney) and it was my favorite LaBute drama up until that time, because it was a play wherein the author — widely and wrongly perceived as a mere provocateur — exposed so much of his own vulnerability. Perhaps that's why it was not a commercial success.
Focused on two struggling, interwoven couples, "Reasons to be Pretty" dealt with the difficulties of long-term relationships in the economic milieu of the Costco break room and, yet more interestingly, about how our varying levels of physical beauty create a power imbalance that can haunt us all our lives and torpedo the purity of our love. "Reasons to be Happy," which is now in its Chicago premiere at the Profiles Theatre, is LaBute's 2013 follow-up to that earlier drama, still set around Costco and focusing on the same quartet: Greg (Eric Burgher), Steph (Domenica Cameron-Scorsese), Kent (Dennis Bisto) and Carly (Sarah Loveland).
In the earlier play, we watched Greg bring down upon himself a torrent of abuse by sharing with his girlfriend Steph that she was the owner of a plain face. In the more recent play, which was produced Off-Broadway, Greg and Steph are still fighting, even though Steph is married to another dude. But they're also really trying to negotiate the parameters of an actual relationship (or post-relationship relationship) just as Greg — a guy in his 30s who has finally gotten out of retail and is pursuing a teaching career — is really trying to build a life for himself, even as his environment keeps pulling him back.
If "Reasons to be Pretty" was about the first serious relationships of the ill-equipped, "Reasons to be Happy" is about the messiness of what happens when everyone has gotten divorced, or separated, or pregnant, or whatever, and the deck chairs all get moved again. Most specifically, Greg starts to date Carly, another familiar character from "Pretty," and Steph's best friend, even as Carly's ex, Kent, is also Greg's friend. As one character remarks, the rearrangements feel incestuous. But then, close ties are hard to bust.
Although more of a comedy and less raw, "Reasons to be Happy" is almost as good as "Reasons to be Pretty" (it would be great to see them done together). This is a very smart and resonant play. Exceptionally so. Alas, this is just not a very good production.
Profiles and LaBute have served each other well these last few years. LaBute, who cut his teeth Off-Loop, admires the company and has been generous with the rights to his plays. Profiles, in almost every case, has done right by the playwright, staging his exciting contemporary dramas in intimate confines. But this miscast production, directed by Darrell W. Cox, is full of problems.
First and foremost, the play does not work unless you empathize with the characters, all struggling with their own desires and demons. Unfortunately, you really care not a hoot for Burgher's eccentric Greg, nor for Cameron-Scorsese's jittery Steph, whose pain stays too hidden behind the jumpy exterior. Bisto and Loveland work a little better, but, and I never thought I'd say this about a LaBute play at Profiles, the lack of emotional involvement, and the lack of veracity in a production with the characters doing too much shouting past each other, means that the show gets dull.
It's a promenade-style staging and, across from me, people were nodding off. At a LaBute show? Time for everyone here to figure out how to jolt them back awake.
When: Through Oct. 12
Where: Profiles Main Stage, 4139 N. Broadway
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
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