Neil LaBute's favorite theme can be summed up in three words: people hurt people. In his plays and screenplays, everybody gets damaged: a schoolteacher, a gay man, a college student, an obese woman, a deaf woman, a Don Juan and an illicit child, just for starters. In LaBute's world, men particularly are cruel, but there are also a few females — the teenager in bash and the savage art student in The Shape of Things, for example — who can spread pain with the worst of 'em. Because of his focus, LaBute's been labeled a misanthrope, but I think there's more truth in calling him a Darwinian, a scientific observer of the struggle for survival and the little deaths that humans deal out as they fight for breath day by day. Sometimes he goes too far — the Jason Patric character in Your Friends and Neighbors was just too vicious to be believed — but for the most part, he seems to know something sadly true about the life cycle: from kindergarten to the deathbed, the landscape is littered with broken egos. It's amazing we can suffer so many assaults and retain our optimism.
In reasons to be pretty, currently playing at the Straz Center in a Jobsite Theater production, LaBute's concern is the male obsession with physical appearance, and the harm it can do to men and women both. It all starts when Greg, a 20something goodish sort of guy, is overheard admitting that his girlfriend Stephanie is no knockout but has a "regular" face. Stephanie is enraged when she learns about it, and feels she has to break up the relationship and find a man who thinks her beautiful. But Greg is heartbroken — regular face or not, he loves high-spirited Steph and can't understand her abiding pain.
Complicating matters is Greg's friend Kent, who finds nothing about a woman relevant except her physical look and shape, and who cheats on his wife Carly with a stunning new co-worker. As Greg fights to salvage his life with Steph, and Steph searches to salve her wounded self-image, appearance-mad Kent enlists Greg in covering up his extramarital straying. Finally, the pressure from every quarter is simply too great, and the inevitable explosion occurs. When the smoke clears, more remains than hurt feelings.
The play is not one of LaBute's best — it runs out of ideas halfway through act one, and doesn't really pick up again until halfway through act two — but two of the four Jobsite actors turn in spectacular work, and the other two are solid enough to make the experience more than enjoyable.
As Greg, Dayton Sinkia gives a near-perfect performance, one so definitive that I can't imagine the part played by any other actor. Sinkia's Greg clearly meant no harm in his remarks about Steph, honestly loves her and depends on her, and is willing to assist Kent in his deception of Carly only because there seems to be a rule somewhere that guys have to stick together.
Kari Goetz as Steph is also superb, passionately upset by Greg's remarks and very funny as she tries gamely to restore her lost dignity. There is one important problem with Goetz, though: she's too good-looking for the part. This may seem a strange objection, but when a whole play is centered around a woman's despair at her appearance, it makes no sense for the woman to be a brightly attractive blonde.
As Kent, Chris Jackson starts slowly — LaBute figures like this one are meant to be more contemptible at first light — but eventually heats up into just the right sort of despicable jerk. Lastly, Grace Santos Feeney is a sturdy if not very prismatic Carly.
The play is staged by David Jenkins, who really knows how to build to a climax, and the modern sets, by Brian Smallheer, are just right for these contemporary lovers. Katrina Stevenson designed the players' street togs and work clothes, including Carly’s official-looking security guard uniform.
reasons to be pretty is usually lumped with The Shape of Things and Fat Pig, making a LaBute trilogy on the subject of personal appearance. The other two plays are, I think, more interesting — The Shape of Things is the most mind-boggling — but pretty has its strengths and is certainly the most comic. See it with someone you find gorgeous. Or be prepared for some perilous after-theater conversations.
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