Neil LaBute’s plays aren’t for the faint of heart. His relationship drama “reasons to be pretty” opens with a ferocious profanity-laden fight between a woman and her boyfriend who allegedly alleged to a friend that she wasn’t necessarily the prettiest girl in the room. There’s no warm-up, just a donnybrook of personal attacks and incriminations. It’s uncomfortable in that way that witnessing an intimate fight can be – do I laugh? Do I cringe? Is he lying? Is she overreacting? Yes.
Directed by Doug Schutte, The Bard’s Town Theatre’s production of “reasons to be pretty” opened Thursday and runs through June 29 in the theater upstairs from the restaurant. The play raises intriguing questions that provide rich fodder for post-show discussion: what is beauty worth? When should you interfere and when should you keep quiet about someone else’s relationship? Are jealousy and resentment incompatible with love?
The above-mentioned couple, Greg (Schutte) and Steph (Cara McHugh), are engaged in their emotional knock-down/drag-out because Steph’s best friend Carly (Megan Brown), who is married to Greg’s friend Kent (Chris Petty), overheard Greg malign Steph’s looks and swiftly reported the offense to her friend. When confronted, Greg can’t see what he’s done wrong. Steph admits that she knows she’s not a perfect ten, but hearing that Greg agrees wounds her to her core. It’s enough to make her reevaluate their life together, leaving Greg confused, grieving and resentful, with little solace from cavemannish, alpha-male Kent, who flashes his own beautiful wife like a prized object.
There’s little spectacle or flash to this talky play, so it’s all on the actors to carry the show. Schutte and his cast inhabit the characters comfortably with performances that allow LaBute’s biting dialog to shine. McHugh comes out swinging at the top of the show and continues her no-holds-barred performance throughout the first act, culminating in a damning confrontation in, of all places, a mall food court. Greg might be the hero of the play, but Steph’s the heart. Schutte and McHugh enjoy a more palpable chemistry than Petty and Brown, whose characters are locked in the dance of wary deception that relationships based solely on surface qualities can be. But LaBute wisely gives the audience “a moment with” each character, and those monologues are illuminating and well-realized by the company.
“Misanthropic” is one word thrown around in response to LaBute’s unflinching social inquiry. His plays have a tendency to put human nature’s pettiest moments under the microscope to reflect our most shameful cellular-level wiggling back to us. Misogynists and sharks have long populated his work, starting with the two predatory bros at the center of his career-defining 1993 play “In the Company of Men” (which he adapted into an award-winning feature film starring Aaron Eckhart in 1997), and in his 2001 college drama “The Shape of Things,” it’s the male love interest who allows himself to be “improved” into a more pleasing version of himself by his manipulative girlfriend.
In many ways, “reasons to be pretty” is a more hopeful play than LaBute’s been known for in the past. It’s a straight-up indictment of patriarchy, for starters, and how it limits men as well as women — the audience genuinely empathizes with Greg as he struggles against the masculine ideals espoused by Kent and his own emotional inertia. And while Kent turns out to be a fairly disgusting character, it’s difficult not to feel for an adult who believes his greatest shot at happiness is winning the softball league trophy. LaBute shows more mercy to his women characters, who feel keenly the judgment of their physical attributes and want to believe in their men but are conditioned by years of shoddy treatment to trust little of what they say. All of the characters struggle with the limits their blue-collar jobs place on them – the repetitive work, the obedience-driven workplace culture, the game-like pursuit of overtime. Steph’s single change puts in motion many for her life, but can Greg break out of his personal rut? Would Kent even want to?
The play’s 2009 Broadway run garnered multiple Tony and Drama Desk Awards, and a sequel, “Reasons to Be Happy,” is open in the off-Broadway MCC Theatre now.