BWW Reviews: LaBute's REASONS TO BE PRETTY Hits a High Note
Neil LaBute is known for writing abrasive plays, in which aggression often leads to violence. And the characters are not criminals but ordinary people who find themselves reacting differently when placed in extreme circumstances. It could happen to anyone. Look at Bash as an example. In his latest work reasons to be pretty, currently onstage at the Geffen Playhouse through August 31, LaBute examines ordinary people once again, but in ordinary, day to day life, in ordinary relationships. Directed meticulously by Randall Arney and with an outstanding cast, reasons to be pretty, in spite of its slow, realistic pacing and drawn out but believable dialogue exchanges, offers some pretty sage advice on how to treat others. And that is pretty welcome advice, indeed.
It takes a while for Greg (Shawn Hatosy) to see the light, but better late than never. At the top Greg and his live-in girlfriend Steph (Amber Tamblyn) are having a pretty intense argument about something he said about her. Her friend Carly (Alicia Witt) overheard him say it to her husband, Greg's best friend Kent (Nick Gehlfuss), but Greg can't remember or feigns stupidity. Steph claims he made an obnoxious remark about her having an ugly face, not being pretty. It upsets her to such a degree that she goes ballistic, throws an ashtray at Greg and then races off in his car. This first scene is perhaps the most difficult for an audience to get through. The dialogue is repetitive but with a staccato intensity... to the point of uneasiness. At one point I almost wanted to get up and walk out of the theatre for a break. Such is LaBute's ferocious intent; once into the second or third scene, you realize the importance of the setup, how important the fierce repetition was for both characters, in order to experience some kind of change in the way they perceive others and, more urgently, themselves.
The nifty thing about LaBute's choice of people is that he takes blue-collar workers - Greg, Kent and Carly all work in a warehouse - people without advanced education. Greg reads literature like Hawthorne, Swift and other major authors with the hope of going back to school to make something of himself. He is burdened with awkwardness and flaws, but becomes increasingly likable; Kent is an obnoxious macho asshole from the getgo, taking advantage of wife Carly's loyalty by committing adultery with another, prettier employee...and while Carly is pregnant. Both women Steph, the plain one, and Carly, the pretty one, find unhappiness, insecurity in the way they are. This vulnerability, in the long run, makes them more sympathetic and likable than the guys. Each character, in true LaBute, fashion, steps forward to deliver a monologue that nails his (her) individuality. With that monologue alone, you either like or dislike the character. Good for Greg, that his is positioned last, at the end, when he has learned his lesson. In fact, he ends up serving as LaBute's mouthpiece on how one should live one's life.
The first scene and another early one where Steph confronts Greg with a hate list in a public food court are the most verbally abusive, but the second is not without a bold, offbeat sense of humor. There is a fight in Act II between Greg and Kent, as both boys are about to play softball for their company's team, but it is less violent than other LaBute scenes, a more positive squaring off between two friends who need to set the record straight when one has misused the other. It seems that LaBute has perhaps mellowed with age, concentrating on a more thoughtful, more humane plan of action.
The acting is superlative from all four actors. Hatosy, Tamblyn and Witt are so genuinely vulnerable at every turn. The scenes between Hatosy and Tamblyn are especially electric and absorbing. They have great chemistry. Kent stands apart from the others as the bad boy, and Gehlfuss plays his ugliness and stupidity to the hilt.
Takeshi Kata's moving/revolving set design works quickly and efficiently.
I highly recommend reasons to be pretty. It moved me unlike any other LaBute piece. It is by far one of his very best.