Thursday, June 5, 2008

A Real (La) Beaut

reasons to be pretty
By Neil LaBute
Directed by Terry Kinney
Starring Piper Perabo, Alison Pill, Thomas Sadoski, Pablo Schreiber

Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher Street

Thomas Sadoski and Alison Pill (photo Joan Marcus)
In reasons to be pretty, Neil LaBute again takes aim at the ongoing war of attrition between the sexes. As in the previous two entries in his loose-fitting “trilogy,” the new play grabs its male protagonist by the neck after a serious gaffe. In The Shape of Things, the hapless, unsuspecting hero is given the ultimate make-over by his girlfriend as part of her school project; in Fat Pig, the protagonist’s relationship with an overweight woman comes in for derision; and in reasons to be pretty, a simple question is asked: “Just what is ‘pretty’?”

Greg works the night shift at a Costco-type warehouse with his best friend, Kent. As the play begins, Greg discovers that even the most offhand comment can have huge consequences: His girlfriend Steph lays into him because Kent’s wife, Carly, has told Steph of having overheard Greg’s comparison of a new co-worker's “pretty” face to Steph's “regular” face. Steph shrieks and swears at the poor guy as if she had just caught him in flagrante with her sister. Greg tries to patch things up with his girlfriend, reluctantly covers up for Kent’s infidelities to the lovely Carly, and ends up in a mano-a-mano fight with Kent at the local ball field when the whole sordid business finally comes to a head.

In bits and pieces throughout the play, there is a new maturity in LaBute’s writing. He has always been an able chronicler of contemporary sexual and romantic entanglements, as in his previous plays and such films as In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors; but his dialogue has never been sharper or more resonant than in the soliloquies he allows the characters in reasons to be pretty.

Too bad, then, that LaBute ends his play with Greg’s own monologue, which is surprisingly tin-eared in its sentimentality and also redundant in giving him the last word. After seeing a now-radiant, newly engaged Steph one last time, Greg puts his head in his hands and starts sobbing, which speaks far more truthfully about what he’s learned or where he’s headed than LaBute’s clunky “here’s what happens to everyone” explanation.

There’s also the nagging feeling that a four-year relationship wouldn’t come to an end solely due to Greg’s unfortunate choice of words. Does Steph have such an inferiority complex that Greg's saying she’s not as good-looking as a knockout beauty would really make her call it quits? Maybe there are other problems that this incident simply brings into sharper focus, but LaBute doesn't present this idea persuasively, so we’re left wondering why Steph makes much ado about not much.

Under Terry Kinney’s unfussy direction, LaBute’s quartet is enacted with utmost conviction by Alison Pill (Steph), Thomas Sadoski (Greg), Piper Perabo (Carly), and Pablo Schreiber (Kent). Pill, who has already proved to be one of our most winning young stage actresses in Blackbird, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, and Mauritius, brings a real sadness and a glowing inner beauty to Steph, a role that could have been a mere mouthpiece for the author’s one-sided harangue.

Sadoski plays Greg with an immensely charming befuddlement as the constantly moving goalposts in his relationships wear him down emotionally. He even convincingly speaks from LaBute’s moralistic soapbox at the end:
“We can't stop staring at movies and TV shows and tons of magazines, all of 'em saying that beauty is this big deal. It isn't. It's so not.”

Any actor who can put across such soggy lines credibly deserves praise.

No comments: