I’m not a fan of Neil LaBute’s discomforting work like IN THE COMPANY OF MEN or FAT PIG because, even though I know some men feel emasculated by women – and I know society, (not just men) places value on outward beauty, LaBute writes about it in terms that make my skin crawl. Imagine my surprise when I saw SpeakEasy Stage’s hilarious (but still disturbing) production of REASONS TO BE PRETTY (playing through April 2nd).
LaBute lightens up at bit on the blame game (believe it or not) – and I say that knowing full well that the opening scene would make a sailor (no, the whole Navy) blush. He nails the comedy in the war of the sexes in both camps. (There is an irredeemably despicable character written as a cipher but he’s not the man at the center of the play).
That particular guy is remarkably sympathetic. It’s his girlfriend who is totally unreasonable in the first scene. We can understand why she’s furious: He’s told a friend that he wouldn’t trade her and her “regular” face for a thousand knockouts like the hot new hire at work. The friend’s wife overhears and passes it on.
Poor Greg (the charming Andy Macdonald). He’s the unfortunate schlub who just digs the hole deeper trying to explain away his remarks to a raging Angie Jepson. “It was a point of contrast with you as the good thing!” Jepson as Steph reacts with a nuclear meltdown. The audience is in stitches, having been, no doubt, in similar tight fitting shoes.
LaBute is still the master manipulator (he gets us to condone and congratulate violence) but he’s not so obvious in this play and the ride is amusing. There’s payback but it’s subtle compared to his other spirit crushing plays. Characters grow and there’s even hope to savor for three of the four characters at the end of REASONS TO BE PRETTY. Angie Jepson’s rage has subsided. Danielle Muehlen will see the light and our hero can move on (and up). Only Burt Grinstead escapes LaBute’s kind reformations.
Eric Levenson’s magnificent industrial set looms over the action, as if the rows and rows of metal shelves (looking like lab animal cages) might topple, like their lives are collapsing. As clever as Levenson’s ominous work “cages,” are Rick Brenner’s echoing click-clicks of high heels on concrete, warning the men that women are around, observing them. Gail Astrid Buckley fits the warehouse workers in dusty grey jumpsuits which fit their grey lives but her “dress up” attire for Steph at play’s end bursts out in color, just as Jeff Adelberg’s lighting reflects LaBute’s optimism (Yes, optimism! Who knew!).