Even a single word can wound, particularly if the word you just happen to use to describe your girlfriend’s looks is “regular,” or so 20something Greg will learn to his eternal chagrin in Neil LaBute’s laceratingly funny reasons to be pretty, now getting a pitch-perfect Geffen Playhouse premiere under artistic director Randall Arney’s astute direction.
“Regular” may have been Greg’s (Shawn Hatosy) unfortunate choice of adjectives when comparing hot-new-girl-at-work Crystal with his live-in lover Steph (Amber Tamblyn), but that’s not what Steph heard when Greg’s pretty coworker Carly (Alica Witt) reported back to Steph on a conversation her husband Kent (Nick Gehlfuss) had with best bud/fellow night-shifter at a recent shindig.
“Ugly” is what Steph accuses Greg of having called her in the rage-filled verbal attack that opens reason to be pretty with what may well be the most profanity-fueled scrimmage of the sexes in theatrical history, for despite Greg’s attempts to deny, deflect, or defang Steph’s invective and despite his best efforts at convincing her that by calling her looks “regular” he was in fact complimenting her on one of her most attractive assets, Steph is having none of this, and by scene’s end, she has left him with a final “Fuck you!” (or words to that effect).
What follows are a series of scenes set either in the break room of the factory where blue-collar chums Greg and Kent and security guard Carly pull the nightly “third shift,” or at a shopping mall food court or local Italian restaurant lobby, or at the playing field where Kent vows to lead the factory softball team to its first trophy in over twenty years—and since this is Tony-nominated (for reasons to be pretty) playwright Neil LaBute we’re talking about here, audiences can rest assured that dialog doesn’t get any more astute, razor-edged, or in the case of this play in particular, outrageously funny than the words shouted, sneered, spat out, snarled, or otherwise uttered by his four flawed yet achingly real characters.
Richest of all is Greg, an all-around decent under-achiever whose coming-of-age journey is reason to be pretty’s heart and soul and raison-d’être, and Hatosy, whose film/TV career stretches back to the mid-‘90s (and who can still pass for Greg’s late-twenties), simply could not be more heartbreakingly winning in the part. Without the right Greg onstage almost throughout the play, reason to be pretty could end up missing the mark. With Hatosy proving himself as a gifted a stage actor as he is on the big and small screen, the play hits the bullseye.
LaBute has been accused of misogyny in his writing, and indeed Steph may embody the very traits that can drive men mad, whether in the persistence of her opening salvo or in the downright cruel (and apparently endless) list of character faults she reads out loud (and by that I mean out loud) not merely to Greg’s face but to a food court-full of assembled mall diners. Still, and particularly with the gifted Tamblyn bringing her to multi-layered life, we understand where Steph’s insecurities are coming from, i.e. her fears at how little her life will be worth should she be judged as merely “regular” in a world where female beauty counts for so much.
Still, no matter how much of an (insert gender-based pejorative here) Steph can be, her minuses pale in comparison to Kent’s all-around asshole-ness, a macho braggadocio outweighed only by the contempt he feels for women, whether plain like Steph or pretty like Carly, the latter of whom he gives only “a few more good years” before all she’s got going for her is gone. Gehlfuss’s film/TV credits may not go back nearly as far as his costars’, but the talented 2010 MFA Acting grad vanishes inside Kent’s philandering skin to reveal just how ugly a handsome guy’s interior can be.
Last but not least is the splendid (and stunning) Witt as Carly, a woman who finds her beauty to be nearly as much of a curse as Steph’s “regular” looks (it’s all Kent sees in her after all) and not nearly enough to keep a husband around for the long haul.
reason to be pretty’s 2008 off-Broadway debut gave Greg, Steph, Kent, and Carly each a character-defining, fourth-wall-breaking monolog, excised by the playwright when the play transferred to Broadway a year later and restored at the Geffen. A 2011 Chicago production afforded Greg an additional opening monolog to precede his knock-down-drag-out with Steph … and ran under two hours without an intermission. The current production sticks to its original format (running two-and-a-half hours including intermission), and though I haven’t seen reasons to be pretty as either Broadway or Chicago audiences did, it seems just right at the Geffen.
Also just right is the Geffen Playhouse production design, beginning with scenic designer Takeshi Kata’s ever-surprising set (which does things only a major regional theater budget can allow) and continuing with costume designer David Kay Mickelsen’s character-perfect outfits, Daniel Ionazzi’s evocative lighting design, and the deliberately, gratingly high-decibel factory buzzers and pulsating original music of Richard Woodbury’s topnotch sound design. Violence designer Ned Mochel excels too at what’s more commonly called fight choreography. (I’ll leave it to your imagination to decide who fights.)
Young Ji is production stage manager and Jessica R. Agular is assistant stage manager.
Kudos go out to casting director Phyllis Schuringa not only for the production’s four stellar leads but also for securing the understudy talents of Scenie winners Kate Huffman (as both Carly and Steph) and Shaun Anthony (as Greg) along with Los Angeles newcomer Christian Pedersen (as Kent).
I’ve seen and loved each and every Neil LaBute play I’ve reviewed since 2011’s The Break Of Noon at the Geffen. reasons to be pretty may well be my favorite of the bunch, not only because of the humor he mines from its inherent human drama but also for the humanity of its characters, Greg in particular.
I’ll leave it to you to discover whether our hapless hero gets the happy ending he so richly deserves, or whether it’s still a ways down the road. Either way, and particularly with Hatosy bringing him to such memorable life, this young American everyman is someone you’ll be glad to have gotten to know. I know I am.
Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Avenue, Los Angeles.
August 7, 2014
Photos: Michael Lamont