reasons to be pretty
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 8, 2009
Neil LaBute describes his play reasons to be pretty quite accurately as a coming-of-age story; it's an unusual one, I think, in that its protagonist Greg comes of age almost entirely on his own, by which I mean there's no context for how he got to where he is when we first meet him, why he's stuck there, or how he finds a way out. No family, no community grounds this young man; he's in a vacuum, or a void, by himself. The soullessness of this serious comedy reflects the aloneness of this character.
There is an inciting incident: Greg, in casual and unchecked (and perhaps a little bit drunken) conversation with his buddy Kent, remarks that his girlfriend Steph has a "regular face." Steph's friend Carly, who is Kent's wife, repeats Greg's words to Steph. And Steph does not take this comment well at all.
When we meet her, as the play begins, she is in the middle of a heated diatribe, screaming at Greg about his meanness and insensitivity and dishonesty (for he is trying to squirrel out of this); she threatens to kill Greg's fish or worse; her tirade is so laden with the f-word that Greg notes at one point that she sounds like an Eddie Murphy concert.
It wasn't clear to me what Greg might want to salvage in this relationship, but he does attempt reconciliation. But Steph is unrelenting. Meanwhile, Kent, who is as archetypal a callow macho douchebag as it's possible to be, chides Greg for being careless with his woman, even as he lets loose the information that he (Kent) has initiated an affair with a hot girl who works with them (they work on the loading dock of a big Costco-like store). Carly is unforgiving with Greg, but when she needs him for something, she's totally ready to let bygones be bygones and put him into a situation that's untenable and inappropriate.
Greg is surrounded, you see, by assholes. LaBute paints himself into a corner rather quickly, though; with only four characters in his play, and three of them utterly unlikable, the only thing that sustains us as we watch is Greg's possible triumph over his compadres. We root for him to escape, but he takes what seems to be a very long time to do so.
The dialogue is sharply written, mostly nailing the casual Anytown, America sounds and rhythms of the blue-collar characters; the crowd-pleasing jokes feel inserted, though, and sitcom-like. There's a ton of bad language, of course, and too much offensive name-calling: Kent, for example, uses the word "coolie" at one point, for example, which is fairly jarring, and words like "faggot" and "gay" are insults that are fair game for everyone on stage. At this point in his career, LaBute no longer needs to get our attention with this kind of stuff.
Terry Kinney's staging is solidly naturalistic, except that he's apparently asked set designer David Gallo to provide a literalized representation of the Greg-is-trapped-in-Costco metaphor in the form of huge floor-to-ceiling shelves at the edges of the stage filled with boxes of products. Kinney's cast is first rate, with Marin Ireland (Steph), Steven Pasquale (Kent), and Piper Perabo (Carly) making the most of one-dimensional characters. Thomas Sadoski has much more to work with as Greg and he is terrific—his performance is compelling and detailed, and goes a long way toward making this play, which is essentially much ado about very little, hold our interest until the final curtain.