Neil LaBute's reasons to be pretty Is Full of Decent Actors, But What's It Getting At?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010
Phoenix New Times

The third in playwright Neil LaBute's trilogy about looks-ism, reasons to be pretty is a humdinger, full of fire and music and enough invective for a half-dozen Edward Albee plays. Dark, angry streams of abuse fuel both LaBute's comedy and his larger message about language as power — a message that comes vividly to life in Stray Cat Theatre's season opener, thanks to four distinct and powerful performances. But LaBute takes rather a long time to make this point, and, ultimately, his keen observations about the ways in which people — particularly young, working-class people — talk to one another becomes a victim of its own coarse cacophony.

Because this is a play about young people, most of the hollering is linked to sex. When we meet Greg and Steph, they're engaged in the shouting match that will end their romance. She's mad because he's made a disparaging comment about how plain she is, a comment overheard and repeated by her friend, Carly. Greg has only Carly's husband, Kent, to confide in, but Kent is a vulgar oaf who's distracted by his new girlfriend and doesn't care that Greg and Stephanie have split.

It's a slice of real life that's elevated by smart dialogue, sprinkled with crude clichés and a ration of cleverly mangled malapropisms that aren't enough to mitigate the exhausting length of its two acts. Fortunately, the production has other means at its disposal to keep its audience engaged. Like David J. Castellano's magnificent set, which unfolds again and again to reveal another expertly crafted backdrop for LaBute's bellowed angst. Each of these is cannily propped before a wide stretch of chain link that suggests the colossal cage in which these people have trapped themselves, tangled up in words and tripped up by lousy life choices.

Director April Miller has filled this functional set with a superb cast. Michelle Chin, a diminutive dynamo, is perfect as Carly, in part because she's pretty without in fact being the va-va-voom knockout her husband describes her as, which lends some pathos to both her performance and to LaBute's dialogue about the value of physical beauty. The innocence Chin brings to crafty Carly allows us to sympathize with her, because Chin is offering us a young idealist and not a loudmouthed meddler.

As Greg, Owen Virgin takes center stage as a hapless warehouse drone, the kind of guy other men are friends with because of his proximity to their lives and not because he has anything in common with the lunkheads he works and plays ball with. Virgin nails this lonely outsider who gradually, while we watch, becomes connected to his pent-up longing for a more meaningful life. Kate Haas is better in histrionic scenes than in repose, and perhaps too pretty to play a plain Jane, but her quiet confidence provides contrast to the hurricane roaring around her.

It's Alexander Odysseus Bradley who steals the show as a warehouse douche bag who creates romantic woes for everyone around him. Rather than play Kent as a mean-spirited clown, Bradley offers a man who's utterly devoid of compassion. Kent is full of words but hasn't, in the end, much of anything to say — sort of like this nicely presented Neil LaBute play.

reasons to be pretty