Contemporary society puts a debilitating premium on physical beauty. “Beautiful women are like athletes,” opines one of the characters in Speakeasy Stage Company’s production of Neil LaBute’s new play “reasons to be pretty.” “They have a couple good years and then their knees go.” The obsession with ‘prettiness’ is the ostensible subject of this frequently electrifying production, but its real message is altogether more subtle and closer to home.
The already small stage of the Nancy and Edward Roberts Studio Theatre, where “reasons to be pretty” runs until April 2, is aggressively compressed by a concrete wall running along it horizontally. Within this setting, the play’s multiple changes between locales—including food courts, baseball fields, and other typically American surroundings—are realized through swift changes of scenery arranged by the actors themselves. The milieu is blue-collar, and a sense of suppressed dissatisfaction with the status quo, with relationships, and with the way in which people grow up pervades the entire work.
Andy Macdonald plays Greg, a 20-something manual laborer whose overheard throwaway comment about his girlfriend Steph’s (Angie Jepson) face being “regular” destroys their relationship. The play begins with the fallout from this remark, with Steph mercilessly haranguing her hapless boyfriend and his inept attempts to salvage the situation only making it worse. What for men seems inconsequential is portrayed by LaBute as the ultimate insult to women—an attack on their beauty.
Macdonald’s performance is wonderful, his gangly physique and perpetually hangdog expression exuding perennial adolescence and a reluctance to engage in adult relationships. His grasping toward some kind of maturity—in his acceptance of the hurt he has caused Steph, his desire to quit his dead-end job, and perhaps most compellingly his rejection of his best friend, the odious philanderer Kent (Burt Grinstead)—forms the narrative backbone of the play, and Macdonald pitches it perfectly. Greg is not an especially intelligent character, but he is sensitive, earnest, and ultimately redeemable. He is well-supported by the other members of the company, all of whom offer thoughtful, nuanced performances.
LaBute’s prose helps them out with its artful inarticulacies, a fractured everyday type of speech with clumsy pauses and platitudes that feel more realistic than the carefully composed dialogue of contemporaries like David Mamet. The writing may not crackle with Mamet’s ferocity, but the characters are more fully formed and Paul Melone’s unflashy, focused production places the emphasis on individual performance. There’s some evocative use of industrial sounds and lighting, marred slightly by some unconvincing fight choreography between Greg and Kent. This hardly matters, however, because the characterization of their clashing male egos is so well established by their speech.
Nonetheless, the play lacks much of LaBute’s old bite, the bile and venomous blackness that prompted theater critic Robert Weinert-Kendt to refer to him in a Village Voice review of “Jailbait” as “American theater’s reigning misanthrope.”Publicity for “reasons to be pretty” suggests it is supposed to be a dark look at the American preoccupation with physical perfection, but is actually about the more universal theme of growing up and dealing with adulthood. As such it is distinctly less satirical and pointed than its opening 10 minutes suggest. A comparison with his earlier works—pitch black comedies “In the Company of Men” and “The Shape of Things”—reveal this to be a gentler, more contemplative work on a gentler, more contemplative theme. Whether this is a sign of increased sensitivity, or a loss of the sting that made that earlier work so memorable, remains to be seen.
Malone focuses his attention on the interplay between characters, rather than on the brief and vaguely illustrated stabs at the theme of ‘prettiness.’ This is certainly to the advantage of the drama, though it does make the occasional return to the play’s supposed theme a little incongruous. Incidents like Greg spotting Steph deliberately prettifying herself with new clothes and make-up after they have broken up feel out of place in the context of this character-driven production.
The climax is reasonably mild compared to “The Shape of Things,” which culminated in plastic surgery and complete identity crisis, but the final scene here—Greg’s adult acceptance of Steph’s happiness with another man—seems more true to life and satisfying. By focusing so completely on performance and the inner life of the characters with compressed staging and modest technical flourishes, Malone allows their individual narrative arcs to take centre-stage, rather than attempting to convey broader conceptual points. It’s unclear whether or not this was LaBute’s intention, but the staging is impeccable. On the face of it, “reasons to be pretty” represents an intriguing new phase in his development as a playwright.