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Neil LaBute Creates Reasons to Feel Yucky

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reasons to be pretty

Written by Neil LaBute, Directed by Paul Melone, Scenic Design by Eric Levenson, Costume Design by Gail Astrid Buckley, Lighting Design by Jeff Adelberg, Original Music/Sound Design by Rick Brenner, Production Stage Manager Jayscott Crosley

CAST: Andy Macdonald (Greg), Angie Jepson (Steph), Burt Grinstead (Kent), Danielle Muehlen (Carly)

Performances through April 2, SpeakEasy Stage Company at the Roberts Studio Theatre in the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts Box Office 617-933-8600 or www.BostonTheatreScene.com

"Her face is just regular, but I wouldn't trade her for a million bucks." That offhand remark by Greg to his friend Kent is overheard by Kent's wife Carly and gets immediately transmitted to Greg's girlfriend Steph, setting off a firestorm of outrageous proportions in the opening scene of reasons to be pretty. SpeakEasy Stage Company is presenting the New England premiere of Neil LaBute's drama that looks at America's obsession with physical beauty through the eyes of four young friends living lives of quiet desperation.

Director Paul Melone is helming the third of LaBute's plays known as his "Beauty Trilogy" after previously directing The Shape of Things and Fat Pig at SpeakEasy. Reasons premiered off-Broadway in 2008 before opening on Broadway and running for 85 performances in the spring of 2009, garnering three Tony award nominations, including Best Play. Helping to create Melone's vision, all but one (Eric Levenson, set) of the four designers have previously worked on LaBute's shows here, too. Gail Astrid Buckley (costumes), Jeff Adelberg (lighting), and Rick Brenner (original music/sound) bring out the blue collar, hardscrabble existence wherein these four characters grapple to find some meaning and survive.

The problem at hand is Greg's careless comment about Steph. After living together for four years and putting up with each other's neuroses (he's passive-aggressive; she's sensitive about her stability being called into question), to Steph this feels like a direct hit between the eyes. She attacks like a fire-breathing dragon and never really gives him a chance to defend himself.  For his part, Greg is evasive and dances around the truth, but finally has to come clean, sealing his fate. Steph leaves him and spends the rest of the play alternately making his life miserable and attempting to convince herself that she did the right thing.

Her exit sends Greg on a soul-searching journey as he tries to understand what went wrong and improve himself in the process. He works in a dead end job in a warehouse with his stud buddy Kent who is all too willing to give Greg advice about women. This from a guy who ogles the new woman in the company even as Carly works nearby on the security detail, and seems to think that marriage vows have an expiration date if something prettier comes along. Ultimately, Greg figures out who he wants to be when he realizes he doesn't want to be that guy. Out of loyalty to Steph, Carly is caustic towards Greg until she finds herself in need of a friend in a delicate situation. His response is a sign of his developing maturity.

For those familiar with LaBute's work, many of his trademark characteristics are present here, including extremely blue language, clever dialogue, dark humor, and brutal personal relationships. However, an important departure in this story is that we get to witness at least one of the characters grow up, with the hint that it is also a possibility for another. Seeing this at the end makes up for some of the unpleasant behavior and attitudes we've had to witness over the course of two hours. LaBute's characters are certainly not dull, but they are not people you really want to hang out with for any length of time. Kent (Burt Grinstead) is an immature cad with a roving eye who struts his beefcake body around like Gaston from Beauty and the Beast.  Carly (Danielle Muehlen) is a one-trick pony, believing that her attractive looks entitle her to be a bitch. Steph (Angie Jepson) is unstable, wanting to be thought pretty at the same time as she wants to be taken seriously and share an emotional commitment. Greg (Andy Macdonald) is the only one who isn't pretending to be anything other than who he is - adrift, not sure what he wants out of life, but willing to go with the flow and see where it takes him.

Macdonald is solid at the center of the cast and makes you root for Greg to get his act together. His passage from clueless rolling stone to goal-oriented mensch is gradual and not without fits and starts, but that makes it all the more convincing. Jepson also transitions from the down-and-dirty spitfire of the early going into a more genteel version of Steph, at least on the surface. She conveys that her character is a work in progress who learns that it is easier to put on nice clothes than it is to make internal changes. Grinstead is definitely doing something right because I wanted to slap him every time he played a scene. Muelhen is the weak link as her portrayal is relatively one-dimensional. Jepson doubles as the fight coach and has choreographed a wonderful climactic altercation between Greg and Kent. 

As a reflection of the power of LaBute's pen and the strength of the SpeakEasy Stage production, I had a strange hangover effect after reasons to be pretty. I would describe my condition as feeling yucky and angry seeing the view of life through the obsessions of these (mostly) shallow characters. I suppose we all know people like that in real life, but I try to confine any contact I might have with them to large social gatherings or reality tv shows. At the end of the day (and the play), the clock is ticking loudest for the beautiful people.  

Photo credit: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo (Angie Jepson, Andy Macdonald)

 


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