June 4, 2008

The Inner Beauty of “Reasons to be Pretty”

Say what you will about Neil LaBute (and Lord knows people have said plenty) the man knows how to write dialog that sounds the way real people talk. And, of course, the people in LaBute plays talk a lot, often at loud decibels and frequently saying things that aren’t very nice. All of this is true in the new MCC Theater production of Reasons to be Pretty, a play about two working class couples and how the men in those relationships deal with the perceived attractiveness of their women.

Like most people I first became aware of LaBute when “In the Company of Men,” the film adaptation of his play about two male co-workers who trifle with the affections of a deaf female colleague, won the Filmmakers Trophy at the Sundance Film Festival in 1997 and set off a firestorm of stories debating the film’s misogyny. LaBute’s background as a convert to Mormonism (his potty-mouthed and sexually charged works eventually got him excommunicated) further stoked the flames. And the playwright’s prolificity (11 of his plays have been produced in New York during the last nine years) and his ability to attract big name talent (Calista Flockhart, Liev Schreiber, Ben Stiller, Sigourney Weaver, and Jeffrey Wright have all appeared in his plays) have helped maintain the heat.

As a result, I may have seen more plays by LaBute than by any other playwright, with the possible exception of William Shakespeare. I haven’t liked them all. LaBute can be self-consciously provocative, mischievously manipulative and he isn’t nearly as hip as he thinks he is—a reference to Eddie Murphy in the current play would have been cooler and funnier if it had cited Chris Rock instead. Even so, I’ve been fascinated by each of his works. LaBute is smart and thoughtful (click here to listen to an interview he gave earlier this year) and he writes the kind of plays that get the people who see them talking after the show just as much as his voluble characters do on stage. And that’s a good thing, and an unfortunately rare thing in theater these days.

LaBute has said that Reasons to be Pretty is the final installment of a trilogy about physical appearance that began back in 2001 with The Shape of Things about a woman who overhauls a schlubby guy, and continued three years ago with my favorite Fat Pig, about a man who falls for an overweight woman but will do anything to keep his friends from knowing that he cares for her. The new show isn’t as malicious as the first or as moving as the second. And although it may be LaBute’s most mature work (some of the characters actually put aside their childish ways) it may also be his most preachy. “I’ve written about a lot of men who are really little boys at heart,” the playwright, now 45, says in a note in the Playbill before going on to add “but [this play] is really the first coming-of-age story I’ve written.”

That story is brought to vibrant life by a first-rate cast—Piper Perabo, Alison Pill, Pablo Schreiber and the very good Thomas Sadoski—and they’re superbly directed by Terry Kinney, co-founder of Steppenwolf Theatre Company. The performances alone are worth the price of the ticket. The show is only scheduled to run at the Lucille Lortel Theatre through July 5 but it deserves a longer run.

My friend Bill and I saw it on a Saturday evening and as we came out of the theater, we had to thread our way through crowds of twentysomething couples and single-sex bands of friends who had come to act out their mating rituals in the Village. They looked like the kind of folks who take their relationship cues from chick flicks and Judd Apatow’s guy-centric comedies. If I were a more outgoing sort, I’d have pulled a few over and told them to see Reasons to be Pretty. It too speaks their language but it has more to say.


Anonymous said...

Neil Labutes talent and creativity is beyond words.....amazing!!

Anonymous said...

I was fascinated to learn from your post that LaBute was a CONVERT to Mormonism... and that he'd been excommunicated. To me, his being excommunicated for reasons of unsatisfactory artistic expression is another dismaying example of the increasingly large role that the church (in all its manifestations) is playing in matters of American art and politics. Depressing.