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Jenna Fischer Rants in Neil Labute’s Sharp New Play

'Reasons to Be Happy'
Josh Hamilton and Jenna Fischer in "Reasons to Be Happy" at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. The play runs through June 29, 2013. Photographer: Joan Marcus/O and M Co. via Bloomberg

Like his 2009 “Reasons to Be Pretty,” Neil LaBute’s terrifically entertaining off-Broadway comic drama “Reasons to Be Happy” begins with a rant.

Greg, a hapless substitute teacher (Josh Hamilton), is in hot water with his shrewish ex-girlfriend Steph (Jenna Fischer from “The Office”). He has taken up with her pal.

“You sleeping in her bed at night, that puts a real (bleeping) kink in the arc of our friendship,” Steph says to Greg in a parking lot outside a Trader Joe’s.

But after realizing she wants him back, Steph separates from her husband and pressures Greg to dump her friend Carly (Leslie Bibb), a single mom who works in a factory where Greg once toiled. (Steph, who cuts hair, dropped Greg in the “Pretty” play after hearing he made a dismissive comment about the aesthetics of her face.)

Leaving Carly isn’t easy, and Greg is on tenterhooks trying to avoid setting off each woman.

Zany Talk

Hamilton is perfect as an aspiring academic, indecisive and oblivious. Thomas Sadowski originated the role in “Pretty,” which briefly transferred to Broadway.

LaBute, who’s also a film director and screenwriter, has an ear for zany talk that often meshes expletives and self-help mumbo jumbo. The four characters are all sympathetic but the anti-intellectualism of Greg’s circle is over the top.

“We live in America, for God’s sake,” Steph says, apropos of her disdain for geography. Who cares “where the straits of Gilbraltar are, right?”

“Yeah, absolutely,” Greg says sheepishly. “I think there’s just one of ‘em, but yes, I agree.”

A deafening buzzer regularly blares in Carly’s factory, perhaps symbolizing the scant control these characters have.

Carly’s temperamental ex-husband, Kent (a hulking Fred Weller), mocks Greg for reading literature, such as John Steinbeck.

“Do you ever read anything good?” he asks, yet spends his time volunteering with kids. A well-meaning doofus, he urges Greg to take charge of his life.

Greg eventually takes dramatic action in the pursuit of happiness. It’s one for the books, and comes at a cost.

Through June 29 at MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortel Theater, 121 Christopher St. Information: +1-212-352-3101; Rating: ***1/2

What the Stars Mean:

*****  Fantastic
****   Excellent
***    Good
**     So-So
*      Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Philip Boroff is a reporter for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Ryan Sutton on dining and Katya Kazakina on art.

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