I never feel good after seeing a play by Neil LaBute, who’s been termed everything from a “provocateur” to a “misanthrope.” That seems to be the reaction he seeks, churning out plays for two decades, about one a year, most of them are about people who are manipulative, crude, thoughtless and hurtful. Reasons to be Pretty, getting its local premiere at New Edgecliff Theatre, was his first play to make it to Broadway, where it landed in 2009 and earned a few Tony nominations.
LaBute is a skillful writer. His characters, including the four in this play, speak in carefully crafted, colloquially sounding words. LaBute’s dialogue resembles the machine-gun coarseness of David Mamet, a playwright he admires. In interviews he has spoken of “the power of words to hurt,” and that’s what this play is about.
It opens with an explosion of profanity as Steph (Rachel Mock) castigates her passive boyfriend Greg (Steve Early) for describing her face as “regular.” That feckless remark was made to his boorish friend Kent (Justin Baldwin), repeated to Kent’s wife Carly (Mindy Heithaus) who passed it along to Steph. She’s done with Greg’s noncommittal behavior.
Greg, Kent and Carly work at a frozen-food factory, a mind-numbing grind where the only respite is lunchroom conversation. Kent constantly obsesses over an attractive coworker; Greg puts up with his sexist attitudes but eventually must cover for him. No one is happy when this tale is over.
LaBute says, “It’s part of my makeup to ruin a perfectly good day for people.” That’s true of his characters as well as his audiences, who squirm at this vile behavior. Reasons to be Pretty explores how much people will take before they say “enough.” Early gives Greg a vaguely likable persona, but he’s weak-willed; Mock keeps Steph at one furious note for too long, so when she begins to cool, it’s too late. Baldwin makes Kent’s appalling behavior almost humorous, while Heithaus’s Carly is a victim who seems to have knowingly married a jerk. And me, I just left the theater feeling like I spent the evening with people I hope I never meet again.
REASONS TO BE PRETTY, presented by New Edgecliff Theatre, continues at the Columbia Performance Center through April 28. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.