I was recently asked to speak at an MCC Theater ‘talk back’ about Neil LaBute’s new play, Reasons to Be Happy. After the event, the theater suggested that I write a blog post for their website discussing the character’s emotional worlds and whether or not I thought they would be successful in their pursuit of happiness. Here’s a copy of the post originally published on the MCC blog.
In Neil Labute’s Reasons to be Happy, the main characters grapple with a pervasive sense of dissatisfaction as they painfully try to make their way towards happiness. Although each character is ostensibly on his or her own journey, one common thread for them all is their attraction to the protagonist, Greg. Therefore, for the purposes of this post, I’d like to highlight Greg’s misguided search for happiness and the damage he causes to the people in his orbit.
Although at first glance we may find Greg to be the tepid, non-threatening, nice guy next door, he is actually a man consumed and driven by his own professional ambition. Lacking in native empathy, Greg doesn’t seem to understand what it means to invest in relationships. Instead, he lives in an Odyssean fantasy, disconnected from the people around him, with only the façade of true connection.
He doesn’t realize that his suffering is in large part due to his inability to connect in a meaningful way to others.
Greg is interested in others only in as much as they supply him the admiration and validation that he craves. We can assume that this is why he continues to lead them on, allowing each one to believe whatever fantasy they have about their relationship to him. He labels his approach “non-confrontational”, but he is actually behaving in a way that I would call a ‘good boy’ narcissist. He lacks empathy for other people’s subjectivity, but he also desperately wants to be the good and special one. Therefore, he avoids defining his experience in a way that might alienate the people who supply him validation. He doesn’t seem to understand that his passivity is in fact hurting the people in his life.
Both Steph and Carly doggedly look to find their happiness through an intimate relationship with Greg. The women subjugate their needs and wants on many levels in an effort to attach themselves to him. Perhaps they do this in the hopes that he will offer them a way out of their average lives. Maybe it is easier for these women to live vicariously through Greg’s ownership of his ambition than it is for them to wrestle with the conflict of their own desires. The women may also be drawn to Greg because he willingly becomes a vessel for their fantasies. Carly says that she finds him “safe” because he doesn’t lust after her or treat her like an object. What she fails to realize is that his desire is not directed toward her, which is why she doesn’t experience him as predatory. In reality, he’s safe because he’s not treating her as anything. He doesn’t have any true regard or investment in her as a person.
The one character that has some understanding of the extent to which Greg is disconnected from other people is Kent. He sees the way Greg is self-involved, self-indulgent and lacking in empathy. Although Kent doesn’t have the book smarts to articulate himself eloquently, he does seem to have a sense of clarity around Greg’s underlying selfish nature.
There is something deeply moving and sad about the three characters that orbit around Greg. They perpetually look for meaning and connection with a man who has neither the capacity nor the interest in forging intimate relationships. On some level it would stand to reason that all three have a sense of Greg’s limitations, and yet on another level they continue to hope that Greg will surprise them and behave differently. Meanwhile, Greg has little understanding of the pain his behavior is causing the people around him, or how this alienation from others contributes to his unhappiness.
In the end, I am not confident that these characters have learned enough about themselves to create lasting change. They seem reactionary, not thoughtful, and I don’t know that they will necessarily do things differently in the future. If not, then it stands to reason that these characters will continue on an unsuccessful quest for happiness for a very long time.