If Jenna Fischer wanted to shed the good-girl image she acquired during nine seasons on NBC's The Office, a Neil LaBute play is a pretty great way. Steph her hot-tempered, foul-mouthed, physically and abusive character in the oddly captivating Reasons to Be Happy (through June 29 at Off Broadway's Lucille Lortel Theatre) is worlds away from reserved receptionist Pam Halpert. If, however, Fischer wanted a dynamic, meaty role for her professional stage debut, she's about five years and one play too late.
LaBute created Steph and Happy's three other characters in 2008's Reasons to Be Pretty, and he gave Alison Pill a lot more to work with. On Broadway in 2009, Marin Ireland got a slightly less juicy but still fleshed-out Steph. Here, she just berates, cajoles, provokes, and, sigh, goes crawling back to Greg (Josh Hamilton, giving one of his best performances in years) the guy she dumped in Pretty because he called her, well, not pretty. Steph's now married to another guy (who remains off-stage), but she's going to walk out on him for a guy who's taken up with her ex-best friend, the super-pretty Carly (Leslie Bibb, of TV's Popular and GCB). This despite the fact that she spent a solid 10 minutes haranguing him about his new relationship before stomping on his Tofutti Cuties outside Trader Joe's. So she's both unlikable and unbelievable. And then there's Carly, who thinks the way to get a guy ''hot and bothered'' is with a speech like: ''You're a really good guy, Greg. I think you are a really decent and nice person and I'm glad that we're together now.''
But Happy is Greg's play; the other characters only live in the background. That includes Kent (Fred Weller, a master of the art of playing idiots), Carly's dim-witted bully of an ex-husband and Greg's former friend. Without Kent around, we wouldn't know how smart Greg is check that how smart Greg thinks he is. And that, actually, makes Greg quite believable: a narcissist who's capable of winning the hearts of two women but completely incapable of deciding between them. Sound familiar to anyone? (For a while against my will, I'll admit Greg even wins our affections.)
In my ideal world, LaBute would put his two Reasons plays on a double bill: Start with a trimmed-down, intermission-free version of Pretty; then, after a 15-minute interval representing a three-year gap move on to Happy. Taken together, they're a terrific character study. You get to see Steph grow and then regress; Greg starts out as a bad guy, then worms his way into our good graces, then creeps back out again; Carly actually shows some smarts not to mention a backbone; and Kent...well, Kent will probably always be a ''douchebag'' (his word). And the parallels a Greg-Steph fight in the opening scene, the factory break-room setting, Steph wearing a skirt and blouse that looks like a dress are fascinating.
Happy stands on its own, of course; so if you didn't see Pretty, don't worry LaBute gives us all the necessary background. I just wish he'd given us a credible female character or two as well. B
(Tickets: mcctheater.org or 212-352-3101)