reasons to be pretty
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
May 29, 2008
Late in Act II of Neil LaBute's terrific new play reasons to be pretty, Greg, the hapless protagonist, laments, "Oh God, I never say the right thing." Which is funny considering the scandalously inappropriate things the author's characters have said over the years. As often as LaBute has ruffled audience feathers, it's only because he speaks uncomfortable truths. In that regard, reasons to be pretty is no different from his other works. This time he faces up to those truths himself.
In the play's program notes, LaBute writes that "it's probably the first coming-of-age story I've written. A boy grows up and becomes a man." Not only is that sentiment indicative of Greg's journey throughout the play, but also of the author's more public journey across his own psyche. There's a strong element of housecleaning to reasons to be pretty, as he ushers out more of his old, vicious persona and embraces a newer, more compassionate one. It's just another chapter in the ongoing saga of the author's fascinating evolution as a dramatist.
The play kicks off with Greg and his girlfriend, Steph, in the middle of a heated argument. She's incensed about an offhand remark he allegedly made about her face (as in, it not being as pretty as that of a new female co-worker). He denies saying any such thing, but since this is a Neil LaBute play it's a certainty he did. It doesn't help matters that whatever Greg did or didn't say was spoken in confidence to his best bud, Kent, and reported back to Steph by Kent's nosy pit bull of a wife, Carly. So, Greg feels persecuted, and Steph feels betrayed, thus ending their four-year relationship.
After this initial confrontation, LaBute shows the aftermath of the breakup—how it affects both Greg and Steph, as well as their friendships with Kent and Carly—and illustrates how Greg's unfortunate remark may have been the straw that finally broke the camel's back.
The first clue that LaBute is growing (up) as a writer yet again is the introduction of Greg, who is sensitive and artsy: he reads Poe and Hawthorne on his lunch breaks. Sure, he's lazy and a coward, making him a typical LaBute protagonist in those regards, but he differs from his predecessors in that he's genuinely nice and means no one any harm.
And, LaBute has heaps of compassion for Greg, who sees himself as a harmless, somewhat victimized ne'er-do-well. That's because he starts the play as a passive participant in his own life. Things happen to him, but he doesn't instigate any of them. As more things occur that are out of his control, and the need/desire for change becomes stronger, Greg grows up and takes a more active role in his life.
Kent, on the other hand, is very much one of the author's trademark alpha males: aggressive, emotionally ignorant, and—very much so, in this case—a misogynist. That he is one of the first such characters in LaBute's canon not to be positioned as the protagonist is another sign of the playwright's maturation. When placed next to Greg, Kent looks exactly like what I imagine he's intended to come off as: an asshole. He is clearly the villain in this tale, and when the two men come to blows late in the play, the symbolism of Greg (representing the 98-pound weakling) beating up on Kent (the schoolyard bully) is lost on no one.
One thing all the characters do have in common is their blue-collar status. This is the first of LaBute's plays to be populated with working class folks, and he clearly feels for them more than he has for many of his previous creations. Whatever misgivings he may have about them, they all get a chance to show their good side. Whether it's Kent speculating that God doesn't have a master plan, or Carly illustrating the price of being beautiful (i.e., random guys following her around the supermarket), LaBute shows what to like about (or, at least sympathize with) these characters.
These are all meaty roles, and the superb four-person cast of reasons to be pretty tears into them with gusto. Piper Perabo and Pablo Schreiber are convincingly volatile as Carly and Kent, a couple fueled by suspicion and fear as much as by lust and affection. The excellent Alison Pill scores big yet again with a moving performance as Steph. Her transformation from shrewish malcontent to soft-spoken glamour girl is laced with authentic emotional peaks and valleys. And, Thomas Sadoski is wonderfully forlorn as Greg, mapping his sojourn from spineless LaBute-ian man-boy to self-aware adult with believable, humanistic precision. My hat is off to all four actors—as well as director Terry Kinney, who gives the production a jolt of muscular Steppenwolf-style electricity—for simply playing the characters without ever once commenting on them.
reasons to be pretty concludes with a pair of truths more palatable than the ones LaBute usually serves up: one character declares, "I'm a hopeful person, and I think that's nice," and another tells the audience straight-up that it doesn't take any effort at all to be nice to people. These may be the most shocking sentiments yet from a writer who never fails to surprise. But, once again, he's just telling the truth as he sees it this time. For a writer who keeps looking for as much as clarity as his characters seek, the truth may yet set him—and all of us—free.