Reasons to be Happy that the Internet exists: If you’re a pissed-off playwright, sweet revenge can be just a few keystrokes away.
Neil LaBute’s latest play — a similarly-named sequel to 2008’s Reasons to be Pretty that stars The Office‘s Jenna Fischer and GCB‘s Leslie Bibb — is either great, terrible, or somewhere in between, depending on who you believe. Ben Brantley of the New York Times named it a Critics’ Pick, saying the show could be “the most winning romantic comedy of the summer.” EW’s own Melissa Rose Bernardo gave it a B, along with a more lukewarm review: “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.”
And then there’s Time Out New York‘s David Cote, who savaged everything about the play — its “long-winded, boorish” characters, its “monotonous” scenes, its “predictable and banal” plot twists. He began his short assessment with a particularly cutting jab: “If Neil LaBute were to teach a course on playwriting, I bet his lesson plan would look something like this: ‘Week 1: Dumbing down characters to pad out dialogue and pump up conflict.'”
After reading such a harsh review, a playwright in the B.I. (Before Internet) era would have no choice but to stew, complain about it to his close friends, and eventually challenge the critic to a duel after a chance meeting at Sardi’s or something. But because it’s the year 2013, LaBute himself — or at least someone using his name — didn’t have to suffer in silence.
About 15 minutes after Time Out posted its review — and a full 15 hours before anyone else had even commented on it — the following note appeared at the bottom of Cote’s review:
david: actually i have taught writing courses at various universities and workshops and my lesson plan invariably begins by having students read the collected works of George Steiner, who was clever enough to remind us that “a critic casts a eunuch’s shadow.” some shadows, of course, are more portly than others but their effect on mankind is basically the same. brief and passing. keep enjoying the free tickets while they last. nl
The comment was posted by “neil labute.”
We can’t say for sure if this anti-critic rebuttal was actually written by LaBute himself. Though a source indicated to EW that it was, the MCC Theater’s spokesperson would issue only the following statement: “Internet comments are largely unregulated, and so we aren’t able to confirm whether or not Neil LaBute was the author of the statement in question. However, we can confirm that Mr. LaBute is indeed the author of Reasons to Be Happy, the new MCC production that opened to rave reviews from just about every critic that matters.”
But LaBute does seem to have sparred with Cote in the past. The critic himself pointed EW to acrimonious comments left on a 2009 blog post about LaBute’s relationship with the MCC Theater, which he says are genuine LaBute barbs: “He has a history of such trollery,” Cote wrote in an email. Harsh comments bearing LaBute’s name have turned up on at least one other review as well.
“I wasn’t surprised to see that Neil made a comment,” Cote continued, “– but I was taken by the speed. Fifteen minutes! He might have written a new play in that time. If I were to review the comment, I’d say formulaic and lazily composed: one star. If he paid genuine attention to his critics, though, his work might improve.”