reasons to be pretty

by Neil LeBute
Directed by Terry Kinney
Lyceum Theatre / 149 W. 45th St / (212) 239-6200
also  (yes, really)

Reviewed by David Spencer

I found myself somewhat fonder of Neil LeBute’s reasons to be pretty (a title the author specifically wants lower cased) on Broadway at the Lyceum than I did off-Broadway at the Lortel, and it’s not because it has some new cast members, nor because the production’s different (it isn't, merely adjusted for the new space), nor even because the experience is different (which it likewise isn't, save for the “bigger-ness” of a larger audience’s response). No, I think it’s because I gave in to something that had initially kept me at a distance from it:

                  It skews young.

                  Mr. LaBute writes these plays, dissections of society and the standards by which people are perceived and judged (Fat Pig is one, The Shape of Things yet another) and they seem to be harboring these great truths borne out through dark human comedy, and yet, you know, they’re not great truths, nor even especially important, if your view of life is pragmatic enough, or if you’ve been around long enough to understand the folly of making certain minor gaffes and misunderstandings central to your happiness or functionality. (That said, the point of such a play might indeed be to illustrate that a more mature outlook awaits those who battle through the forest tangle and emerge on the other side into sunlight. But even then, it seems that the underlying message is: truth awaits those who would but see it. And I’m like: So?) The best way I can put it is, I always feel as if LaBute is writing plays for the YA crowd. Really: If you were to "young up" the characters, re-locate ‘em into, I dunno a senior high school or a community college, suddenly all their angst would make a lot more sense and seem better placed.

                  Take, for example, the beleaguered hero of reasons, Greg (Thomas Sadowski). He’s seriously in the shit with his girlfriend Steph (Marin Ireland) because her friend Carly heard him say to his friend and workmate Kent (they work on a loading dock) something about Steph's physical appearance. I won’t ruin the actual phrase for you, but if Greg had been speaking intellectually, what he’d have been caught saying, in response to his friend’s assessment of a hot chick at work, amounts to this: My girlfriend may not conform to magazine-model standards of beauty, but I see the beauty in her realer, more natural appearance, and I wouldn’t eschew it for anything. Of course, he didn’t say it like that, he said it in a colloquial way that is beyond any rationalization, like any answer to “Does this dress make my ass look fat?” and when the play-opening fight escalates to the point where Steph forces him to repeat exactly what he said—which turns out to be exactly what she was told—guess what, it’s bad enough, bone-deep enough, in Steph’s mind, to be a relationship-killer.

                  Meanwhile it isn’t that Carly (Piper Perabo) should be so all, you know, that about judging men in casual conversation, because her husband, the aforementioned Kent (Steven Pasquale) does say all the right stuff, to her, but behind her back, her pregnant back (as it were), he’s a crude, womanizing dick.

                  And as the play goes about its paces, the lines cross, the relationships both evolve and devolve, and Mr. LaBute just loves his little ironies.

                  Now they are engagingly worded, true enough—LaBute writes funny, no question—and under Terry Kinney’s direction, they're as engagingly acted: as the press releases say, what's assembled here is a hot young cast, terrifically talented. And because it all matters to them so much, it becomes persuasive.

                  And it’s not as if there’s anything wrong with a play that skews young—I guess—but somehow LaBute’s plays also come at you with an air of profundity that feels unearned. And I think—I think—it’s because he’s fascinated with surface issues, and looking to exploit a deeper meaning they don’t have, as opposed to the deeper issues they cover, which means he's not just skewing young, but skewing callow. If that sounds like splitting hairs, I commend to you Herb Gardner’s play A Thousand Clowns, about a dedicated non-conformist and the society—and the real, urgent obligations—that ultimately force him into the kind of compromise he has spent his life railing against—and his is not an unhappy ending! It’s bittersweet and deep, because for all the hero’s righteousness, the system has its own righteousness too, the issue is examined exhaustively and with deep humanity from all sides, there are no heavies, no moral absolutes, just some things that are righter than others and some you learn to live with and that, my dears, that is profound. (Forget the lesser revivals of recent memory; rent the film, which is an only mildly movie-ized transposition of the original production. Or just read it.) And the mind-boggling kicker is, Gardner wrote this astonishingly wise, mature, timeless, universal and resonant play … in his mid-20s. Mr. LaBute is in his mid-40s. 

                  I guess what I’m saying is, entertaining as reasons to be pretty is, and it is, I want a playwright with a message to dramatize something I can think about…not tell me something I could have said to him

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