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The Stage Dive Weekend Roundup: Neil LaBute and More

Neil LaBute's Reasons to Be Happy, at the Lucille Lortel.

Reasons to Be Happy (at the Lucille Lortel Theatre through June 23)

This week, grouchy pseudo-moralist Neil LaBute, reacting to a pan in Time Out New York, took to his keyboard with pants down and dudgeon erect to reignite the ancient debate over whether or not critics possess genitalia. (The jury is still out, but I can report, anecdotally, that mine are deciduous, coming and going with the seasons.) This tempest in an athletic cup had the happy effect of distracting an already unconcerned world from his latest play, a sour little mess starring Jenna Fischer, late of The Office. Reasons to Be Happy returns us to the world of Reasons to Be Pretty, LaBute's sweetly fugly 2008 gender spar. What world is that? "The outlying suburbs," the program tells us, with ominous vagueness. (It's a factory town … with a Trader Joe's … in other words, the kind of amalgamated American Nowhere — pasteurized, homogenized, reconstituted from John Cougar Mellanconcentrate – that flashes CAUTION! CONFUSED WORLDVIEW AHEAD!) Bookish, schnookish Greg (Josh Hamilton) has been apart from strident, stupid Steph (Fischer) for a spell now, but she screams her way back into his life, complicating his deepening yet still strikingly shallow relationship with Carly (Leslie Bibb). Meanwhile, dopey demon-male Kent (Fred Weller) drifts witlessly around the margins, a specter of old grievances. (Kent was once married to Carly, whose interference helped split up Greg and Steph.) It takes LaBute a full act to disgorge all of this fairly pedestrian information; the play doesn't actually begin until Act Two.

Once it does, we're less struck by the human (read: male) propensity for casual cruelty and ineluctable selfishness — those  changeless and unrevised LaButean themes — than by the play's tendency to repeat itself. We are meant to grow weary of Greg's nice-guy lies and evasions, and we do, but to what end? He's a weasel surrounded by dunces, living in the last American box factory: All he wants to do is get lost in Kurt Vonnegut! He's still a young man! Not yet 45! Will his half-formed dreams come true, or will his half-formed personality trip him up? Whom will he hurt in the process? Do any of these Playskool-figurine small-towners resonate outside the playwright's foursquare imagination? (Steph, for instance, doesn't know who Martin Luther King Jr. is: Cuz she's, y'know, a touch under-read.  Sheesh.) LaBute directed himself here — rarely a good sign — and I suspect these questions were never asked. But if I'm wrong, I do hope the author will correct me, or at the very least give me a firm gentleman's dick tweak, in the comments section below. Off Broadway criticism needs more doughy slap fights. With hard work and low discourse, I can see us taking on a relevance that's practically congressional.

Occupation (at the Barrow Group Space, 312 West 36th Street, through June 23)

You know what else Off Broadway needs? More Sino-redneck burlesque. Ken Ferrigni delivers with his frowsy, feral satire Occupation, about a slightly hapless, very bloody American insurgency that rises in the Everglades after the federal government sells Florida to China in a desperate bid to settle its debts. What ensues is Red Dawn via Idiocracy, with Ferrigni, an energetic young playwright still in his musically profane stage, chopping up shameless redneck caricature with hip-hop anarchy and giddy political pessimism to create an impetuously messy, often uproariously funny suicide vest of a satire. The characters and situations could be deeper, but who cares? This is an almost-grand Guignol about the sound of fury, a young work with a rude mystique and something brutal and fun to say about 21st century xbox-and-end-times American eschatology.

Joe Jung's modest, masterful production cries out for extension, or better, expansion, further workshopping, and an  explosion into bigger spaces where it can do more damage. But don't wait. Where else this or any week are you likely to hear the line, "Don't fucking embarrass me in front of Jesus"?

Venice (through June 30 at the Public Theater)

Anyone in Smash withdrawal should see Leslie Odom Jr. — who played supportive pal Sam — switch gears to play an Iagoesque manipulator in Venice, which is a (let me just get my hyphens locked and loaded here) hip-hop-near-future-dystopia-Orwell-meets-Othello-at-Blade Runner's-house musical. (It also reminds me a little, in its general design and choreography, of Hit List, the dippily "hip" fake-musical from Smash's second season. Jennifer Damiano is the cipherish Desdemona figure, Haaz Sleiman is the even blanker Othello figure.) The show's got holes the size of Airstrip One and characters so thin they're practically gobos, but Matt Sax's elbow-throwing hip-hop score is nicely adrenalized and Odom's syncopated villainy, delectable.

Photo: Joan Marcus