Thursday, March 10, 2011

Boys and girls together in Reasons to Be Pretty.

Fans of gender parity should be thrilled about Neil LaBute's Reasons to Be Pretty (at SpeakEasy Stage through April 2). The famously misanthropic playwright has written female monsters before, I suppose, but none that matches up with popular modes of femininity in quite the same way his long gallery of male assholes has mapped the culture's idea of masculinity.  Indeed,  here LaBute pulls off something like the hat trick he managed in Fat Pig - where he dared the audience to honestly disagree with the cruel standards of beauty his handsome hero's world espoused. In Reasons, his female lead - named "Steph" - throws tantrums so severe, and so comically cruel, that when a character describes her with the c-word, my guess is every guy in the audience silently agreed; and yet you could sense the women in the crowd - well, they didn't think she was so bad.  Not even when she hollered like a five-year-old and broke things; not even when she struck the supposed love of her life in the face.  And yet ten to one, the boyfriends who watched it all in horror went home and told their girlfriends that yeah, they could kind of sympathize with her. You have to hand it to him - when it comes to audience-baiting, with Reasons to Be Pretty, LaBute has penned another beaut.

Meanwhile, as a gay friend of mine put it, why not call this play Reasons to Be Gay?  (Or as another quipped, "Or how about a Ryan Landry version called Reasons to Be Pussy?") To those of us with little interest in women as sex objects, the play certainly operates as a kind of SOS from the edge of a gender war we've only observed from the sidelines (if with mounting horror).  Not that there's any way we could help; and not that the emergence of this kind of harridan has gone unremarked in pop culture; late-night comedy, slapstick frat movies, and, yes, the Gold Dust Orphan shows are filled to bursting with similar gorgons.  Yet these characters are almost inevitably caricatures - cartoons undercut with irony, a form of cultural venting with no real weight behind it.  LaBute is different; he serves his female trouble up straight, no chaser.

Gisele B√ľndchen: the problem
Of course you could argue that "Steph" (who's a hairdresser) has been driven to violence, emotional and otherwise, by our culture's obsession with body image - like so many LaBute characters before her.  Indeed, what sets off her first tirade is a phone call from BFF "Carly," who has overhead Steph's boyfriend Greg describe her face to his buds as "regular" - although in the following context: "Okay, Steph's face may just be regular, but I love her more than anything," or something like that.  In short, Greg's a nice guy who cares for his girl, but who also knows he hasn't bedded Gisele B√ľndchen (at right).  And he's okay with that.  (After all, Gisele is taken.)

Not for Steph the mature comforts of romantic realism, however. Indeed, no bull ever reacted to a red flag as she does to the word "regular." Soon poor Greg is out in the cold, clutching copies of Nathaniel Hawthorne to his chest (though a college drop-out, he's still a reader) as he shuffles back and forth to his dead-end job, which seems to consist of stacking big crates in even bigger cages.

Prowling those cages with him, however, is more female trouble - "Carly" is Greg's co-worker (she holds court in the lunchroom in a guard's uniform, just so we know which gender has policing authority these days). And with the arrival of lovely Carly and her horndog husband, "Kent" on the scene - both of them quite pretty, btw - Reasons to Be Pretty begins to move beyond the horizons of Fat Pig and The Shape of Things, and get a little deeper and more ambitious than the average LaBute play.

One reason to be pretty. Photos by Craig Bailey.
For this time around, the playwright has in mind the construction of a set of interlocking variations on his usual themes. In the past, LaBute has been content to reveal how our culture of beauty victimizes those who lack it - a woman is spurned, or a man is humiliated; then he rings down the curtain. But Carly and Greg struggle just as Greg and Steph did with the "problem" of beauty - even though both of them are, indeed, beautiful (and know it). But beauty, it turns out, isn't pretty - and what's more, it's a double-edged sword. For Kent has been cheating relentlessly on Carly, with a woman even more attractive - in fact, he has finagled a move to a different work shift to give him more time to pursue his extra-curricular activities.

So even as Steph has thrown aside a worthy man who can see through the blandishments of beauty, so Carly is clinging to a cad precisely because she, too, is in its thrall. The question for Greg is: as his buddy-buddy intimacy with Kent has given him the inside scoop on his affair, should he violate the norms of gender loyalty, and give Carly the same wake-up call she gave Steph - only this time with a dose of truth far more crushing?

It's actually a rather interesting moral quandary - and a common one, too; who among us hasn't struggled with some minor variation of it? And LaBute skillfully teases it out to a satisfying climax (complete with fist-fight, here staged, ironically enough, by Angie Jepson, who plays Steph, and is also a fight choreographer). At the same time, the playwright seems unsure what to do with Steph once she's served her purpose as catalyst; he keeps bringing her back on, in scenes that linger but basically go nowhere, because for some reason he's unwilling to allow the scales to fall from her eyes (even when she hears the truth about Carly).

As Steph, Angie Jepson can't quite triumph over this lack of arc - nor does she suggest the depths of insecurity (and thwarted love for Greg) that might inspire a twinge of sympathy even among the boyfriends in the audience.  But Jepson has always given great spitfire, and she certainly crackles on here.  Meanwhile, as Greg, Andy Macdonald looks and sounds just right, but likewise doesn't really suggest the torch for Steph that he claims to be carrying; once caught up in conflict with Kent, however, Macdonald grows quite compelling.  Danielle Muehlen's Carly likewise grows in stature as the play progresses, even though its slightly schematic natures forces her into some hairpin emotional turns.  Meanwhile, as Kent, Burt Grinstead struts and preens with show-stopping confidence - but even he, I think, could tend a bit more to subtext; the cocky Kent is at heart a rather cowardly weasel, and I think he'd rather die than let anyone know that.

Paul Melone's direction was (as usual) strong and slick - although as noted, there are deeper notes to be sounded here and there than the cast seems to realize.  Meanwhile Eric Levenson's set design cleverly blended together work, home and play (just as they're all blended together for the characters), and Jeff Adelberg's lighting was appropriately industrial; the entire physical production, in fact, held to SpeakEasy's usual high standard.  That and the solid acting on offer are more than enough reasons to see Pretty.

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