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Fresh, funny, caustic--though we've seen it before
on January 7, 2009
If you've ever read or seen a play by Neil LaBute (or watched one of the filmed adaptations), you can probably anticipate much of the his latest effort, reasons to be pretty. That's not to say it's not good or even that it's by-the-numbers. Quite the contrary, in fact: LaBute is still a master at exploring the dark side of human nature and rocky terrain of the battleground of the sexes. Like the best artists, he proves not only that he has a distinctive voice, but the ability to keep standard hallmarks fresh in spite of their repeated use.
reasons to be pretty [sic capitalization] is billed as the last installment of a non-consecutive trilogy that also includes The Shape of Things and Fat Pig. All three plays deal with the preoccupation of physical beauty, judgments made that often go unspoken, and the subtle methods of manipulation used to execute them. The characters are also of similar stock: two men and two women in their mid-twenties to early thirties involved some sort of romantic entanglement. The men are particularly confined to archetypes: the Alpha Male--a rude, selfish prick with no morals or scruples--and the Beta Male, a self-deprecating nebbish who knows good from evil but is likely to choose evil due to his own weaknesses. The dynamic between the two is endlessly fascinating, as the Beta Male's willingness to, in spite of himself ,give into his baser instincts is often more troubling than the Alpha's more obvious misanthropy.
These character molds were best explored in LaBute's first and most well known play: In the Company of Men, in which two middle-management drones plan to seduce and humiliate a deaf woman in retaliation for their own perceived romantic injustices. The set-up in pretty is less caustic but no less dire. Our resident Beta anti-hero Greg works a thankless job packing boxes in a warehouse with his Alpha friend Kent; the narration simply describes the setting as "the outlying suburbs". The play opens mid-fight as Greg's girlfriend Steph finds out that he made an offhand comment to Kent about an attractive new co-worker and, in turn, how she fares in comparison. The quote is never repeated verbatim but we slowly learn that the word "ugly" might have been used, or maybe just "regular." An interesting note on the casting: during the original off-Broadway run, Steph was played by Allison Pill. Only within the contrivances of a play could a young woman like Pill, a petite fresh-faced cherub, be considered anything close to homely, even when compared to some hypothetical uber-babe. But maybe that's the point. Throughout the story, Greg is forced to struggle with the statement's peculiarities--not only what he actually said, but whether he meant it and, ultimately, what it means.
Matters are complicated even further by the presence of another babe. Kent's wife Carly, who also works in the warehouse as a security guard. We are first prepared to dislike her, as she lashes out at Greg for his alleged misdeeds without bothering to even hear his side, but in LaBute's world the balance of power is always shifting, as are the audience's sympathies. There are no clear victims or victors here. Through intense, sobering monologues, Carly reveals that her beauty may come at a price, while Steph hints at her own premium on physical attraction.
These types of revelations may border on cliché, but LaBute is always able to make well-mined material seem fresh through his fully rendered characters and pitch-perfect dialogue. Like David Mamet, he has an ear for the natural rhythms and cadences of expletive-laden vernacular--less stylized than Mamet, perhaps, but ultimately more real.
Fans of LaBute's best works like Men and Shape might expect a shocking third-act change in perception that defined those plays. When it doesn't come, however, the climax is no less satisfying--unlike in, say, the surprisingly toothless Fat Pig. Instead, we are treated to a closing monologue by Greg--the last of four, one for each character--that explicates his struggles and lessons learned in full. The results are a bit didactic, as LaBute usually allows his characters' misogynies, weaknesses and revelations to speak for themselves. But in capping the play in such a straightforward and uncharacteristically gentle manner, he forces his audience to confront their own standards of beauty as Greg confronts his. The results leave a lasting impression.