New York’s trendiest spelunker into the murky depths of love, libido, and lousy manners, playwright Neil LaBute has cornered a niche in the market for playfully misogynistic, neurotic male characters.
Many have explored these types before – most notably John Osborne in the 1950s and David Mamet in the 1980s – but few as prolifically as LaBute, who seems to find himself with a new play on Gotham stages every year, most of them produced by MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortel, where his latest, reasons to be pretty, is currently running.
This time the signature LaBute men come coupled up with girlfriends. The play opens with a burst of vitriol as Steph rails at her significant other Greg over something she’s overheard from her friend Carly, the wife of Greg’s coworker and best bud Kent. It’s soon revealed that the magical word he’s used is “regular,” dropped flippantly in describing her face in comparison to a newcomer’s at work and overheard by the ever-astute office security guard Carly, who feels it her duty to report the slip-up to her best friend. Things don’t end well, and the rest of the play explores astutely the idea of what it means to be beautiful and the value of beauty in a world far more complex than surface appearances can hint at.
Greg, the quintessential average, bookish guy who never “made it,” stands in the shadow of his friend and coworker Kent, who has always been the more attractive, more athletic of the pair. But though Greg initially has no inkling of just how much their dynamic is off-kilter, it soon becomes clear that Kent is afraid – not of betraying his wife and embarking on an illicit affair but of the moment Greg will let the cat out of the bag. Verbal sparks turn into physical ones as the two experience a clash of wills, Greg coming out of it all victorious, more sure of himself and more aware of the cost of his insensitivities. It’s in examining the power struggles of men and their peers that LaBute is at his strongest, and the rivalry between Greg and Kent is one of the play’s strongest assets.
Director Terry Kinney keeps the action moving forward briskly, but his hard work is impeded by clunky monologues – one for each of the four characters – that come at arbitrary intervals, punctuating the punchy spurts of dialogue that LaBute writes so well with pat, flabby ellipses and bringing to a standstill the crescendos and swells of LaBute’s otherwise impassioned play.
A few of these monologues – particularly Steph’s – are served well by seasoned performers who bring to them their best game faces, but Greg’s final comments on the bravery of kindness, despite a valiant effort at earnestness from Thomas Sadoski as Greg, feel like a too-easy conclusion to a play so full of emotional sucker punches. LaBute insists in a note in the Playbill that the character of Greg may just be “the first adult [he's] ever tackled,” but his Bildungsroman moment seems too abrupt and too reminiscent of a Hallmark card conversion.
As Kent, Pablo Schreiber, who shone in last season’s Dying City at the Mitzi Newhouse at Lincoln Center, is the most volatile of the characters of the play – all of whom have their hot-headed moments. When Schreiber’s face goes red, watch out – fireworks are sure to follow. And though Alison Pill is miscast as a Steph – Pill could never be perceived as looking “regular” – she nonetheless plumbs the text for moments of exquisite understanding, particularly in a scene where she stands up in the food court of the mall and reads a list of Greg’s deficiencies.
As Carly, Piper Perabo, whose performance at first threatens to implode, soon reveals the substance behind her bubbly exterior. Hers ends up being the most surprising performance in the cast. “I don’t know why God made it so hard to trust you guys,” she observes in a heart-to-heart with Greg in their break room at work, “but he did. And it sucks.” In just a few words, she sums up the heart of the play – the desire for connection and the constant threat of infidelity and mistrust. Deception and the deceived’s eventual rebound may reveal new reasons to be pretty, but not without a muddle beforehand. LaBute may suggest kindness as a worthy antidote, but to what? All too often the play’s poison gives way to pap; I was hoping for a snakebite.