reasons to be pretty
Near the conclusion of Neil LaBute’s newest four-hander, when a sad, wounded young man conveys the importance of a kind gesture, you might find yourself wondering if you’re sitting in the right venue. LaBute, the film and theater writer known for his garrulous dissections of social and mental sadism (In the Company of Men, Fat Pig), seems to have finally created an honest-to-God mensch.
Well, sort of. The play’s jumping-off point is a high-decibel shouting match between the aforementioned fellow, Greg (Thomas Sadoski), and his girlfriend, Steph (Alison Pill), over an ill-advised comment he made about her looks and how he desperately tries to talk his way out of it. Steph is good pals with Carly (Piper Perabo), a security guard at Greg’s blue-collar job, who is married to macho blowhard Kent (the magnificent Pablo Schreiber), Greg’s school friend and coworker. The actions of the four eventually blend into one another and, in typical LaBute form, there are revealing scenes. But the intent is wholly new.
Except for its loud, brash opening, this is a more reflective work than one expects, especially in dealing with LaBute’s ongoing body-image fascination (it was documented with more flash but less thoughtfulness in 2001’s The Shape of Things, and continued in 2004’s more contemplative Fat Pig). In showing how a casual, untimely remark can dismantle the foundation of a relationship, LaBute wisely eschews his shock tactics and truly gets inside his subjects. Sadoski and Pill start off looking too much like a pair of deer in headlights (the latter with a heart attack-inducing intensity), but as their characters’ reserves melt, their gifts as actors begin to bloom, aptly capturing the power struggle of a couple deeply in love and just as deeply in doubt. Perabo’s acerbic, open expressiveness is put to perfect use here, and Schreiber, as the play’s least appealing character, continues to astonish with his versatility; he manages to make Kent both riotously funny and pitifully sad, but never cartoonish.
Directed by Steppenwolf Theatre Company stalwart Terry Kinney, with a tantalizing sense of danger, the show’s unlikely heart is ultimately what impresses. A tense second-act scene between Sadoski and Perabo, for example, results in an emotional catharsis that is the most singularly heartrending moment in the author’s entire body of work. Compassion, balance, measure — qualities not often associated with LaBute, but with reasons to be pretty, it’s fair to say one of the theater’s bad boys has also finally become a mensch. (Tickets: 212-279-4200 or TicketCentral.com) A-