BY BRANDON LAFVING In case you hadn’t guessed already, the title of Neil LaBute’s Reasons to be Pretty is a slight misnomer. It’s meant to be ironical and stuff. A more accurate title would be: It sucks to be ugly, and beautiful people suck too. It is what happened when Murphy (the proverbial Law-writer), immigrated to the States and wrote a Broadway show. In Philadelphia Theater Company’s production, the curtain opens on blatant proof. The irate Genevieve Perrier (Steph) has just been informed that her own boyfriend drunkenly described her face as “plain.” Incredulous, she wants him to say it to her ugly face. We watch the actually quite pretty Daniel Abeles (Greg) avoid, accuse, rationalize, lie, justify, dismiss, and defend himself with whatever other devices his desperation can conjure. Meanwhile, Steph yells, throws objects, calls him names (most of which are painfully true), and in other respects bares the teeth of a controlling psycho-righteous bitch. The first act details their consequent break up.
The discomfort does not end there. As playwright LaBute eviscerates the bleak middle-American world in which the characters meander, he continues to twist the knife. The two men work at a nameless industrial plant. They wear oversized blue-gray jumpsuits with oversized pockets. Elizabeth Stanley (Carly) plays a security officer who also works there. It is all too easy to see them all working in the same roles for the rest of their working lives, then retiring without pensions. Center City dwellers may be reminded of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men or What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. And yet in contrast to his literary precedents, LaBute manages to make the audience laugh at the doldrums. The play’s backbone, Paul Felder (Kent) does a lot of the work here, in the role of a double-talking but self-aware, athletic simpleton. In stereotypical asshole fashion, he decides to cheat on pregnant girlfriend Carly with a younger, supposedly gorgeous, kinky sex minx (whom we never see, tellingly). Talking excitedly about her pretty eyes, he fumbles for a metaphor until he comes up with: “You wouldn’t find that color in a box of crayons…” And after a few moments, adds, “Well, maybe in the bigger box.” Hemingway’s dialogue seems downright florid by comparison.
LaBute has gathered a significant fan base in the last 15 years of his career, many of which were drawn by the films he has directed, such as the immediate cult classic, Death at a Funeral (2010). Like Juno and the more recent 50/50, Reasons to be Pretty is too real to fit into one codified genre. It’s a romantic tragedy, but with satirical nuggets, which are suspended in the bland white gravy of the way people actually behave. I personally sympathized with Abeles for being directionless and arrogant, which of course made me want to throttle him and, at the same time, reassure him that the phase would pass. All of the characters elicited similarly ambivalent reactions from me, which took the tension off the stage and implanted it in my own head. Although I saw the performance on a Tuesday night, which may have left the actors lacking motivation, I did not warm up to it until after intermission. Up to that point, delivery was too melodramatic and slap-sticky. Actors and actresses paused for laughter after jokes, which did not jive with the realistic content. However, the problem was fixed in the second act, which provided an enormous, cathartic pay-off. Kent finally receives his just desserts in the form of a whooping, and Carly is finally tipped off that he’s cheating on her. Revenge is sweet though short-lived. The dust settles on the same dead-end, isolated town. I spent the entire play disagreeing with everything, everybody, and what they were doing, but, being a glutton for dissection, discomfort, and judgment myself, I was the proverbial pig in shit. Anyone who still has the helium red-balloon American Dream tied to their wrist should probably stay away, lest it be popped. All others are indeed welcome.
PHILADELPHIA THEATER COMAPANY’S PRODUCTION OF NEIL LABUTE’S REASONS TO BE PRETTY RUNS THRU JUNE 24 @ THE SUZANNE ROBERTS THEATER