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By RAVEN SNOOK
Welcome to Building Character, TDF Stages' ongoing series about actors and how they create their roles
Every time he performs as Kent, one fourth of the two star-crossed couples in Neil LaBute's Reasons to be Happy, Fred Weller breaks down in tears.
Kent, an alpha male with anger management issues, is about as sensitive as the Hulk, which is why his tears create such a potent moment in the coming-of-middle-age drama, now at the Lucille Lortel in a production from MCC Theater. (It's a sequel to the playwright's 2009 Tony-nominated reasons to be pretty.)
Weller admits it's not easy to get to that place of utter despair, especially since it comes at the end of a long scene. "You do the emotional prep and go on and hope that all the personal sources of sorrow you tried to evoke backstage will be triggered by the imaginary circumstances," he says. "So far it's worked except for one night. I felt so guilty. That scene requires a real emotional event. Without it, I don't feel like it's the same theatrical experience."
He's right. Even though Reasons to Be Happy is primarily focused on Steph (Jenna Fischer of The Office fame) and Greg (Josh Hamilton), the lovers who parted ways in pretty and are now giving romance another go, Kent and his rocky relationship with ex-wife Carly (Leslie Bibb) create the show's emotional core. Out of all the characters, he is the only one who suffers a complete meltdown. Or perhaps it's a breakthrough. In the original play, Kent was a cheater, a jerk, and a perpetual ball of rage. He ultimately lost everything he cared about, however, and now he's finally allowing himself to feel the full force of regret.
With a theatrical resume full of angry young men---a racist athlete in Take Me Out, a heartless office manager in Glengarry Glen Ross, a vengeful abuse survivor in In a Dark Dark House---Weller may seem like a natural for his latest role. But LaBute, with whom Weller frequently collaborates, initially asked him to play passive-aggressive bookworm Greg in the original show. "I actually did the first reading of reasons to be pretty at MCC Theater," Weller says. "Greg is certainly more intellectual than the roles I usually play for Neil. I wanted to do it, but the director thought I was a little long in the tooth. Later, there was talk of me playing Kent when the show moved to Broadway, but that never happened."
But Weller got a second crack at the character. This past February, LaBute sent Weller the script for Happy and after one read Weller was sold. "I was so moved by Kent this time," he says. "He's changed a lot since reasons to be pretty. In some ways he's the same---he still gets into fights---but he's also full of remorse. I remember reading the play in this coffee shop, and I got to his final scene, and I was just weeping. I was so loud people were looking at me! I told Neil, 'You've got to let me play this.'"
The fact that Kent is so different than he was in the first play also quashed any concerns Weller had about taking over a part originated by other actors. (Pablo Schreiber played the role during the MCC run of pretty and Steven Pasquale did the Broadway production.) "His desires are much more profound this time around," Weller says. "He's driven by genuine love and bitter regret whereas Kent in the first play wouldn't have recognized regret if it had kicked him in the stomach. Now he has guilt and awareness of his sins."
Though Weller is probably most recognized for his stint as a good guy U.S. marshal on the USA Network's In Plain Sight, he trained for the stage. (It must run in the family: Movie star Peter Weller is his uncle and also cut his teeth on the boards.) Weller says theatre remains his passion and that he doesn't even mind being somewhat typecast as a bully. "Characters who are driven in that way are fun to do because they're always active," he explains. "There's always a need, even if it's as base as the need to impress. The beauty of that is there's a desire for love underneath it, they just have an odd way of going about getting it. There's a real desperation---they have hard shell exteriors but soft underbellies. I'm really enjoying doing Happy. In fact I would like to do nothing but theatre for a couple of years."
Since TV pilot season didn't go as well as he expected this year, Weller, 47, just may get his wish. "Did you know that every leading male TV character is 37?" he asks, only half-joking. "And the supporting guy is around 50. So right now I'm at an awkward age."
Raven Snook writes about theatre for Time Out New York and has contributed arts and entertainment articles to The Village Voice, the New York Post, TV Guide, and others