First, the bad news.
Neil LaBute still hasn't figured out why men and women are at war, why men are such dicks, or why women are such masochists. His recent play, Reasons to Be Pretty — now playing at Joe Adler's GableStage — finds him crashing against those same intractable questions that have dominated his career and falling back, stunned and possibly concussed.
His co-crashers in this tale are four very sad characters: Greg (Ricky Waugh), Steph (Erin Joy Schmidt), Kent (Todd Allen Durkin), and Carly (Amy Anderson). They're blue-collar folk, as ordinary a quarto as is likely to emerge from LaBute's brain. Of course, that's not very ordinary: For all their outward normality, they are hobbled by deep-rooted psychic traumas that reveal themselves by and by, as LaBute peels back their social façades to reveal the primitive little animals beneath. This is LaBute's MO in most plays, and usually he takes his time about it. Not here. Reasons opens in the middle of a fight: Steph is laying into her boyfriend of four years, Greg, for a comment he allegedly made at a friend's house. Steph has worked herself into a head-spinning cyclone of profanity before we hear what the offending remark was — basically that her face is "regular." This, we learn, Steph cannot abide. She and Greg are quits. "Even if I were unattractive by world standards," she says through tears, "don't I want to be with somebody who thinks I'm beautiful?" (The corollary thought — that Greg might want to be with someone who can tolerate the occasional bone-headed remark just so he doesn't have to live a life on tenterhooks — goes unexpressed. In the LaButeverse, men are rarely effective communicators.)
Reasons to Be Pretty
Reasons to Be Pretty: By Neil LaBute. Directed by Joe Adler. With Ricky Waugh, Erin Joy Schmidt, Todd Allen Durkin, and Amy Anderson. Through November 22. GableStage at the Biltmore, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables; 305-445-1119; gablestage.com
As Greg and Steph go separate ways, their lives continue to brush by virtue of their associations with Kent and Carly, a married couple who are also their best friends. (It was Carly's eavesdropping on the men's chatter that led to Greg and Steph's breakup.) Greg and Steph's relationship, we learn, was a specimen of perfect health compared to the deranged wreck of Kent and Carly's. But whereas Greg and Steph's fell apart because of Greg's honesty about his ill-advised comment, Kent and Carly's is sustained — and happily so — by dishonesty and denial.
Kent is one of LaBute's scarier creations, or maybe he just seems that way because Todd Allen Durkin is such a scary actor. Kent is the prototypical big man on campus, years after he flunked off the last campus that would have him. A life's worth of resentment, loathing, and angry mediocrity seethe and coil through the dark oubliettes of his mind and find expression through savage twitchiness, desperate braggadocio, and ultimately violence. The man's nerves seem ready to leap out of his skin and skitter like frightened spiders out of the theater.
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Durkin is a pleasure to watch, but he's not even the most captivating character on Joe Adler's stage. This is the good news. Like most of LaBute's oeuvre, Reasons to Be Pretty is as much zoological exposition as play — a demonstration of the manifold weirdness of the human animal. Erin Joy Schmidt's Steph is repulsively fascinating — Schmidt's every utterance is a flinch, and though nobody says so, it's evident she spends her life waiting for slights such as Greg's "regular" remark. In a queer way, this is how she measures herself. It might be that she gets into relationships primarily to have her heart broken.
Ricky Waugh has never been as sensitive and subtle as he is as the luckless Greg. A working-class schlub with a well-checked ego — humility possibly derived from a love of literature — we watch him learn, scene by scene, how to be the kind of man Steph wouldn't have to leave. He's a man of few words, holding the stage with a thoughtful look and a touching sensitivity to all that transpires around him.
Amy Anderson is less convincing as Carly, at least initially — toward the beginning, she seems to talk too much and think too little, as though she's trying to get her lines not over, but over with. Later, when Carly begins to recognize the dysfunctions in her own domestic life she heretofore only suspected in Greg and Steph's, she snaps to and digs in, her performance taking on gravitas. The second act of Reasons to Be Pretty is the first mature performance I've seen her give.
Reasons never seems to coalesce around a point, but that's OK. Dramas don't need points. They need drama. We might be satisfied that LaBute has at least avoided the misanthropy, fatalism, and automatic despair that concluded so many of his earlier works, such as In the Company of Men, Fat Pig, and Some Girls. Reasons to Be Pretty's conclusion is neither happy nor sad. It's simply a terminus, at which the play's characters find themselves wearier and wiser than they began. We can picture them waking up the next morning and continuing to live much as they have lived on the stage. It seems they could carry on that way for a while.