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More in sorrow than in anger, and more in annoyance than rancor, it must be said that the talented, thoughtful and tirelessly prolific Neil LaBute finally made his bones on Broadway in 2009, scoring a Tony nomination for best play with probably his least bold and uncharacteristically pandering effort, Reasons to Be Pretty. At least that’s the view based on this conscientiously mounted local premiere.
In typical fashion, the playwright’s people quarrel, abuse, manipulate and misunderstand one another, though this time both men and women act as equal opportunity aggressors, each with his or her contrasting M.O. The show opens with a choleric corker of a lovers’ donnybrook between a violently pissed-off Steph (Amber Tamblyn of Joan of Arcadia and Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants), and her passive and pinioned boyfriend Greg (Shawn Hatosy, Southland and Reckless).
Steph’s friend Carly (Alicia Witt, Justified) has ratted out Greg about an uncomplimentary remark she overheard while he was talking trash with her husband, Greg’s childhood buddy Kent (Nick Gehlfuss, Shameless and The Newsroom). As Steph throws stuff with escalating fury, Greg feebly attempts both to defuse the conflict and wriggle out of her obsession with the affront, which, manifestly, has as much to do with her anxieties about her appearance as her boyfriend’s spineless need to avoid confrontation or acknowledge consequences.
These are all working-class folk, with rigorously internalized traditional gender roles, for all the foul language and modern mores. Steph works as a hairdresser, and the others work graveyard shifts for all the overtime they can get at what appears to be a warehouse. (Curiously, a design decision has been made to eventually locate them in the area of Joliet, Illinois, despite LaBute’s pointed avoidance of specificity. No one speaks Midwestern.)
Ultimately, however, one and all are schematic types, encapsulated caricatures of the attitudes they represent. LaBute’s facility for tangy dialogue and fierce interplay may be undiminished, but here his strategy relies on everyone becoming embodiments of his fundamentally obvious conceptual design.
Greg, unpersuasively an avid reader of early 19th century American literature, personifies a fecklessly inarticulate male, dimly disengaged from the temperaments of others as well as himself. By contrast, Kent incarnates a contemporary version of the mustache-twirling malefactor; he’s an egocentric, infantile bully and deceiver. Complementarily archetypal, the women are shown to be just as blinded by their own insecurities and as capable of truculent domination and double standards.
As a consequence, there’s little room for anyone onstage to convincingly evolve beyond generalized versions of bad behavior — this despite LaBute’s intention to dramatize the possibilities for positive growth by incrementally improving on a very low bar.
Instead, we get corny schoolyard brawls and posturing pretense in lieu of real development, notwithstanding incessant repetition of points over a seriously drawn-out two acts. There are dollops of accrued self-awareness and self-assertion that arbitrarily yield moments of sensitivity, though these feel less earned than offered as meager rewards to the audience for enduring as much pummeling as those onstage have dished out to one another.
Given such a problematic script, the quartet of players acquit themselves with considerable verve. Tamblyn is scalding and Witt particularly poignant in her direct-address monologue about the penalties that come with being beautiful. Hatosy unearths far more density of detail than his surface tics might suggest, though the cumulative effect can make Greg as tiresome as others perceive him to be. Until Kent degenerates into a standard-issue heavy, Gehlfuss hints at more depth than the script ultimately affords him.
This is perhaps LaBute’s easiest play to absorb, with more cues than customary to highlight its arguments and offer a comfortably clear take on everyone’s personalities. But for all its scabrous heavy going, Reasons to Be Pretty never gets beyond LaBute lite.
For a more original, distinctive and moving experience, the playwright’s In a Dark, Dark House, extensively rewritten after its unfavorably received 2007 Off-Broadway premiere, plays concurrently at the Matrix in a less-polished but far more potent production.
Cast: Shawn Hatosy, Amber Tamblyn, Nick Gehlfuss, Alicia Witt
Director: Randall Arney
Playwright: Neil LaBute
Set designer: Takeshi Kata
Costume designer: David Mickelsen
Lighting designer: Daniel Ionazzi
Music & sound designer: Richard Woodbury
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