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Chicago by John Olson

reasons to be pretty
Profiles Theatre

Also see John's review of The Trinity River Plays

reasons to be pretty
Darrell W. Cox, Christian Stolte, Somer Benson
Those who believe playwright Neil LaBute to be an irredeemable misogynist (or that he inexcusably focuses on creating characters who are) ought to see reasons to be pretty, his Tony-nominated play of the 2008-09 season. True, the play shows enough of men behaving badly, but there's no doubt here that LaBute thinks that's a bad thing. Further, he gives the offended woman of this play a chance to lash back at the guy she dumps. She delivers a hilarious litany of his physical and behavioral imperfections to a degree as unkind and objectifying as any ever heaped by a man on a woman. So there's that, but more importantly, reasons to be pretty is accessible—no gasp-inducing atrocities here, just everyday missteps and unkindnesses, and quite funny. It's more than just another chronicle of the difficulties the genders face in living with each other. There is a larger theme—the price of "settling" and accepting one's current circumstances without saying "enough" and walking out in search of something better.

The event that sets the action in motion is the arrival of a new worker at the grocery store distribution center where Greg (Darrell W. Cox), Kent (Christian Stolte) and Kent's wife Carly (Somer Benson) work the third shift. There's been a conversation, overheard by Carly, in which Greg agrees with Kent that the new co-worker has a prettier face than Greg's girlfriend Steph (Darci Nalepa), whose face Greg says is more "regular"-looking. Carly has relayed that comment back to Steph, who is devastated to hear it. After a prologue (written by LaBute for this production) in which Greg explains the above to the audience, we're dropped right into the middle of the fight in which Steph confronts Greg with that knowledge and decides to leave him. Greg insists his comment wasn't an insult, and points out that he also said he "wouldn't trade her for a million bucks." It's not good enough for Steph—she thinks if a guy were truly in love with her, he'd find her to be beautiful no matter what and she ends the relationship of four years.

The men are not as quick to get out of a bad situation. Their job at the warehouse is dehumanizing. We see them in their workplace break room, a grim place with harsh florescent lighting where an obnoxiously loud and irritatingly nasal-sounding buzzer calls them back to work at the end of their breaks. While Kent has no evident aspirations or outside interests beyond lusting after women and playing on the company softball team, college-dropout Greg dreams enough to read Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne on his breaks. Kent begins an affair with the new co-worker, Crystal, and switches his work shift to days so he can be with Crystal while Carly works third shift as a security guard. Steph is the first to see the need to make a change: Finally realizing her relationship with Greg wasn't strong enough, she gets out. The others will be challenged to re-evaluate their willingness to settle for unsatisfying jobs or relationships and the way this unfolds is what reasons to be pretty is really about.

LaBute's concise play (running under two hours, without an intermission) cares greatly for its characters and has a keen eye for the working-class milieu it depicts. The Profiles storefront space is not the ideal place to stage it, though. Their tiny playing area, with the audience split into two sections on opposite sides, doesn't have enough space for the sort of detailed and realistic set that could fully depict the dehumanizing environment in which Greg, Kent and Carly agree to. Designer Stephen H. Carmody of necessity works with bare walls and just a few props to represent the break room and scenes in a food court, an Italian restaurant and on a softball field.

The cast, directed by Steppenwolf's Rick Snyder, does a creditable job with their characters. As Greg, Cox is clearly in pain over the breakup with Steph. His mastery of understatement, and his ability to dryly toss off lines (like his response to Steph after she slugs him in the jaw with "I'm sure that they can wire it shut") is just what's needed to make the play as funny as it is thoughtful. Nalepa makes Steph's transformation from victim to empowered woman believable. By the end of the play we're firmly on her side, but Nalepa doesn't quite communicate the full pain Steph is feeling at the beginning. We need to know that Steph is devastated that her relationship isn't what she thought. Steph is in shock and in pain as well as being extremely pissed off. In the early scenes, Nalepa nails the anger but lacks the grief that Steph is surely feeling. Stolte has the crudity and false machismo that's required of the narcissistic Kent. Stolte's everyman look—as opposed to the matinee idol appearances of Pablo Schreiber and Steven Pasquale who played Kent in New York off and on-Broadway, gives the character a different dynamic. As played by Stolte, Kent's self-image as Casanova seems more delusional than dangerous. Profiles Ensemble member Somer Benson is fine as Carly, but seems to be working too hard at being tough enough to be a female security guard.

In addition to using the new prologue mentioned earlier, Profiles has added the closing monologue for Greg that appeared in the play's off-Broadway production and was dropped when the show transferred to Broadway. For my money, I liked it better without the closing monologue, which explains the author's intentions quite explicitly. I'd rather feel I figured it all out for myself.

For some time, Profiles has been a sort of "second home" for LaBute's plays (after Manhattan's MCC Theater Company) and they've served each other well. Even if reasons to be pretty is less a perfect fit for their space than some of his other pieces, I'm still glad they brought it to Chicago. Given their track record in extending and moving their shows to other venues, they may be able to improve on this production before they're done with it.

reasons to be pretty will run through March 13, 2011, at Profiles Theatre, 4147 N. Broadway, Chicago. For ticket information, visit www.profilestheatre.org or call 773-549-1815.


Photo: by Wayne Karl

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-- John Olson



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