Neil LaBute’s reasons to be pretty begins, before it starts, with a single word. Asked to compare Steph, his girlfriend of four years, to the new “hottie” at the warehouse, Greg said Steph has a “regular” face. He meant it as a compliment: he loves her inner beauty.
Word gets back to Steph. The play opens with her reaction, an all-points blast from the furnace. She didn’t hear “regular.” She heard “ugly.” And she bombards every atom of Greg’s being.
“Don’t try to Lance Armstrong your way out of this!” she blurts in the midst of enough four letter words “for an Eddie Murphy concert.”
Greg didn’t know. He spends the rest of the play asking people what they really mean and pays careful attention to the answers. In the process, he learns that in the shoot-from-the-hip, Age of Social Media, words can mean very different things to different people. He also learns that while sticks and stones can crack your bones, words can be far more lethal.
Even LaBute’s title tailspins. Throughout his brisk, dialogue-rich, savagely funny drama, he deconstructs a culture based on an ideal of beauty: how advertising, TV and film, and every showroom window in every mall propagandize an unattainable standard. In this blunt, beauty vs. ugly culture, to take a more open look at another human being is like spitting on the flag.
Kent, Greg’s friend of ten years, defines that culture. A self-absorbed priapic, Kent says beauty is all (at one point he adds: “She’s 23, so only starting to fade a bit”). Since the ideal is unattainable, he substitutes a part for the whole. If a woman has an arresting feature (he’s a “leg and ass man,” he boasts), he’ll make do until the next arresting feature lures his eye — away from, in this instance, wife Carly.
Back in the ’80s, relationship plays were in vogue. People argued why a bond had broken. reasons to be pretty’s a 21st-century update. LaBute strands his characters in an ongoing, vicious game of dodgeball: they fight and fend all slights to their image. The culture’s so oppressive, so on-the-surface, even “privacy issues” are a sin. Everything’s public, as if the world were one big cell-phone call. For proof, the playwright has Steph blare: “I can yell at the food court...because I don’t know anyone here!”
Ion Theatre’s been on a roll for some time. How can they follow the expressive silences of Shining City or the WWE physicality of The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Diety? Easy: combine both. Reasons to be pretty is a series of verbal wrestling matches, with no canvas cushion and chokeholds in every word. Director Claudio Raygoza artfully creates an atmosphere where people have become so desensitized that they need linguistic overkill to get their point across: power tactics by powerless people.
Jorge Rodriguez gives a break-out performance as Kent, the Alpha Predator. He’s direct from any local sports bar governed by a “hit ’em and hit the door” mentality. And he talks with near-absolute confidence in his worldview (babe-view?). Rodriguez is so assured, so above the law — and this is a compliment — you wonder if he were typecast.
As written, LaBute’s women receive more than he lets them give. The play pins down Kent’s wife Carly on all sides: beneath her bluff and veneer of control lie acres of unknowing. Lynnia Shanley does a nice job of rounding out a character on a collision course with life-altering news.
Rachael VanWormer gives a special performance as terrorized Steph, whose hurt, even when seemingly repaired, may be bottomless. VanWormer reveals the depth of Steph’s love in the wall-to-wall vehemence of her tirade. (In the play’s best scene, at the top of Act Two, Greg and Steph meet after having broken up; she’s found someone new, but Greg says he’ll hurt her: “He’s a guy. It’s a done deal.” The touching difference: Greg says it to help, not hurt, Steph.)
Greg’s a tricky role, in part because he may be LaBute’s first positive character — i.e., the first to step outside the playwright’s boxes (suggested by Ion’s brick-walled set?). As such, he’s often passive, reading Poe or Jonathan Swift, and minding P’s and Q’s. As played by newcomer Steve Froelich, Greg makes a painful break from the status quo.
The pairing probably isn’t unique. I’ve just never seen them before in this context. Reasons to be pretty has two break-up scenes: one between lovers, the other, friends. The play opens with Steph lacerating Greg over a single, misinterpreted word. In Act Two, Greg and Kent break up a ten-year relationship as well. Greg finally sees through Kent’s macho façade and they tear into each other, with fists instead of words.
All the while, Kent, Mr. Visual, worries what the fracas will “look” like to others. But he comes to see that the sticks and the stones will do far less damage than the words used afterward to recount the fracas.
- Reasons to be pretty, by Neil LaBute
- Ion Theatre, 3704 Sixth Avenue, Hillcrest
- Directed by Claudio Raygoza; cast: Steve Forehlich, Jorge Rodriguez, Lynnia Shanley, Rachael VanWormer; scenic design, Raygoza; costumes, Mary Summerday; lighting, Karin Filijan; sound, Melanie Chen
- Playing through December 28; Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 4:00 p.m. 619-600-5020