Neil LaBute makes upside-down cakes: His misanthropic plays and films share ingredients and flavors with the most run-of-the-mill sitcoms and romantic comedies, except that in place of warm fuzzies and happy clinches, LaBute substitutes bleak chills and malign neglect. From his 1997 film breakthrough, "In the Company of Men," to last year's Off-Broadway hit "Fat Pig," LaBute has expertly, if monotonously, played the role of bomb-thrower at the cocktail party, dishing up uncomfortable truths others would prefer to sweep up and forget in the morning.
He's gotten so practiced at the pose of punchbowl provocateur, in fact, that his shtick has begun to resemble the blandishments of mainstream entertainment. At least that's the impression given by "Some Girl(s)," his latest play, now at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. From its TV-minted cast to its sleek realization by director Jo Bonney, this feels like LaBute Lite: a scourging dissection of dating ethics, as usual, but one that's surprisingly agreeable, almost breezy.
The tone is set by the show's nameless protagonist, a shallow fiction writer played with slippery, defensive charm by Eric McCormack, who looks a bit hungrier and scruffier than he did on "Will & Grace" but employs the same genial, stammering comic rhythms.
A serial commitment-phobe who's finally about to get hitched, McCormack's character has an oddly penitential notion of a bachelor party: to retrace his checkered love life across the continent and settle accounts with old girlfriends. Maybe it's not forgiveness he's after, since he insists that each of his exes meets him alone in a hotel room.
None of these reunions is merry. Instead of exoneration and good wishes, our hero receives a slap from a high-school sweetheart (expertly played by Brooke Smith) still brooding over a prom snub. He's subjected to a mild case of sexual blackmail by a former teaching colleague (Fran Drescher, miscast but still dryly effective) with whom he carried on an illicit affair. And he gets a gift certificate but zero sympathy from a radiologist (Maura Tierney, in the show's funniest, sharpest turn) whom he abruptly abandoned a decade before, in an all-too-familiar pattern.
Our best hint of the real agenda of this memory-lane cruise comes when he takes his one relatively pleasant encounter - with a free spirit (an engaging Judy Reyes) he once dated passionately, if on the rebound - and sours it by digging just a little deeper. Is this dude a masochist or just a moral idiot? Dumb question: True to LaBute's withering worldview, he's a little of both, and worse.
Under Bonney's direction, the actors make the dialogue breathe and bounce, except for the coiled and deliberate Drescher, nearly unrecognizable minus the makeup and whine of "The Nanny." Her character comes off as a deceptively dowdy femme fatale on the order of "Frasier's" Lilith.
Ultimately, as its title promises, "Some Girl(s)" feels as studiously generic as Neil Patel's modular hotel room set: The walls move, the bedding changes, the "girls" come and go, but our hero is none the wiser.