Monday, June 02, 2008

Reasons To Be Pretty

Photo/Joan Marcus

It's not hard to put yourself in the shoes of Neil LaBute's latest accidental fuck-up of a character, Greg. Just have a few drinks with your best friend (call him Kent), and then, while talking about the undeniably hot chick who just started working the register, slur something about how, yeah, she's hot, your girlfriend of four years isn't pretty like that. It's a shame that Kent's wife, Carly, is not only in the next room, listening, but that her best friend, Steph, happens to be your girlfriend, but that should at least clue you in on why, as the lights rise, you're stuck in a fight you can't win.

Reasons To Be Pretty takes Greg's words at face value; the question the audience has to determine, as Steph calls him out on what she perceives to be the relationship-ending honesty of his words, is whether or not LaBute is capable of writing the truth. The answer: yes, and no. LaBute writes in a sort of hyper-realism, in which the situations are all too genuine, but the dialogue surrounding them is so crisp that it tends to create artificialities that stifle any genuine emotion: protecting the characters with patter. His prolific writing makes him a lazy playwright: the character in the center is real, but everyone else is just acting on him: they feed him pap, exit the stage, and cease to exist.

Reasons To Be Pretty ends up the same: as Greg, Thomas Sadoski is a marvelously human lead. He weathers Hurricane Steph's questions with a justly confused attitude, he tries to win her back with the best intentions, he puts on a happy face (and lets it crack) trying to deal with her new boyfriend and Kent's infidelities, and tries to do the right thing, even though the books he's read don't tell him what that is. However, Alison Pill's rabid rage against him comes out of nowhere: she does brilliantly to give Greg something to react to, and her acting is cool as ice, but it lacks humanity. (She gets some of it back in the second act, but by then, it seems like she's just putting us on.) The same, more so, for Pablo Schreiber's turn as Kent: he acts as if he knows he's the asshole, and he wallows in that, muddying up any truth or clear intent to his actions. He's still acting (I hope: this seems to be a stereotype for him), but it's all focused on Greg; nothing touches him. Surprisingly, LaBute leaves something in the tank for Carly, and Piper Perabo snaps it up, sharply transitioning from a walking punchline ("That's why they call it night," she says. "Because it's dark.") into the sort of woman who is smart enough to know that she's a little stupid, and brave enough to face those feelings.

Perhaps understanding the limitations of the play, Terry Kinney directs to LaBute's strengths: the production is extremely well-oiled, from the swift scene changes to the rapid-fire dialogue, which pops even when it's firing blanks. The set--a room boxed in by Wal-Mart-like storage--is the only ambiguous thing in the play; everything else is sharp and to the point. And that's perhaps what LaBute most needs to work on: Reasons To Be Pretty suffers from the inclusion of four aimless monologues (one per character) that are meant to illuminate, but only reiterate what's already coming across in the scenes. This is that laziness back to haunt LaBute: if he knew how to write more developed characters, perhaps he'd be able to trust them a little more.


Scott Walters said...

Let me ask this: is there any point to this play? Do we learn anything about human nature? Or is this another play that mistakes squabbling for conflict? On one level, the plot has all the makings of farce: inappropriate revelation is overheard by all the wrong people -- chaos ensues! But by your description, it sounds as if Labute is trying for more. More... what?

Aaron Riccio said...

As with most LaBute plays, I don't think he's mistaking squabbling for conflict--I think he's trying to show the shallowness of actual human behavior by keeping his conflicts so resolutely mundane: drama of the everyday. The problem is that he no longer even attempts to write realistic characters: he writes buoyant, exaggerated text first, and then makes the characters follow. I like LaBute, that's why I come down hard on plays that don't meet the standards of, say, "Fat Pig," so yes, I think there's a POINT to the play: it's part of a trilogy on physical beauty, and all the mental trappings tied into that. Do I think that LaBute manages to get there? No. He might as well pick up a scalpel and write for Nip/Tuck.

Scott Walters said...

Thanks, Aaron. Unlike you, I don't like Labute, who reminds me of the kids on the playground who'd show you a closed hand and say gleefully, "Hey, wanna see something really gross?" Perhaps I take issue with the theme of "shallowness of human behavior," with which I mostly disagree. To me, Labute wants to have it both ways: he wants to be a moralist who condemns shallow brutality, while at the same time exploiting that shallow brutality to get attention. Not my thing, but apparently there are others who disagree.

Aaron Riccio said...

Fair enough, Scott. But I don't think LaBute condemns shallow brutality: he simply ACKNOWLEDGES it. The problem is that he rarely manages to make more than one character do so, for he shows shallow brutality with shallow characters, so the only person ever showing tragic humanity is the person being bullied. It's a crude method of storytelling, very American in its lack of subtlety, but he often seems on the verge of something better. Like Adam Rapp, he may simply find himself with so many opportunities to be produced that he has little time (or reason) to actually revise and rethink his work.