March 28, 2005 08:00 AM

One of the hottest theater tickets in New York is for the Off Broadway drama by Neil LaBute, This Is How It Goes – starring Amanda Peet, Jeffrey Wright and the focus of most critics’ attention in Monday morning’s newspapers: Ben Stiller.

While praised for being the lovable klutz he plays in movies, Stiller onstage seemingly throws the balance off the drama by being, well, so darned charming, the critics say.

They are also fairly evenly split over the play itself, coming as it does from the controversial writer-director best known for such tough-edged films as In the Company of Men.

Still, Stiller – “the likable, average Joe of good faith and bad coordination,” says The New York Times – is called upon to lead the audience through an at-times ugly tale of prejudice as three old friends gather for a college reunion.

Stiller “proves an energetic and endearing presence, even when his character is at his most repulsive,” says the Post, while the Times calls his performance “artfully layered (and) leaves you thinking it’s a pity Mr. Stiller winds up a moral construct instead of a real character.”

New York’s Daily News, on the other hand, appreciates Stiller’s charm for softening the toughness of the play. Furthermore, while Peet and Wright also receive their share of accolades, “For all the actors’ intensity and charm,” says the Daily News, “the play remains a tease.”

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