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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Neil LaBute Trilogy Makes a Soft Landing with
reasons to be pretty

reasons to be pretty
Michael Bernardi and
Brad Howell

reasons to be pretty is not the most theatrical or dramatically lacerating of the Neil LaBute trilogy (with The Shape of Things and Fat Pig) on immature and hurtful behaviors among romantically involved young adult heterosexuals. However, it is the least contrived and most universal (one might say mundane) of the three plays, and it brings the trilogy to a satisfying and intelligent conclusion.

The similarities, plot, characters, style, length and structure are striking. Each play has four characters, a principal couple, and a subsidiary one, who are friends of the principal male. The plots revolve around the problematic relationship of the principal male and his girlfriend told from his point of view. In each play, the secondary couple behave badly toward the principal male, seeking to destroy his relationship with his girlfriend. The male "best friend" is particularly cruel and hurtful, the kind of friend who is as destructive as he is hard to lose. Central to each play is the important role of physical appearance in our lives.

The principal female is each a distinctively different person. Evelyn (The Shape of Things), a graduate art student working on her thesis, is a cruel, manipulative bitch who cruelly exploits English lit major Adam as she molds him into an object too far from the nerd that he is when they meet. Helen (Fat Pig) is a well adjusted, sweet, and adorable, but very overweight librarian who loves the weak, white collar Tom.

Stephanie (reasons to be pretty), a simple, good-natured lass, is a beauty parlor worker. She and Greg have been living together, largely contentedly, for four years. Greg, who is employed as a loader in a food warehouse, has some college and is given to reading good literature. More on Greg (and Adam and Tom and Neil LaBute) later.

The secondary couple here are the married Kent and Carly. Kent grew up with Greg, works alongside him as a loader and plays with him on the company baseball team; Carly is a warehouse security guard. The play opens with a most corrosive battle royal between Steph and Greg. Steph is leaving Greg because she has learned from Carly that, during a casual conversation about a pretty new warehouse employee, he described Steph as plain. (I wish that somebody had said that Carly was wrong to have told her friend Steph about Greg's careless words. LaBute makes his characters seem more obtuse than sympathetic when none of the four, including Carly herself, ever rues her having said them.)

Despite some implied differences in class status, it seems clear that Adam (Shape), Tom (Pig) and Greg (pretty) are the same character at different stages of his young adulthood, and that all three are fictionalized surrogates for Neil LaBute. The three plays find our trice named protagonist going from an English lit student dork to a white collar office job to a kind of drop-out blue collar warehouse job (where he grabs any free moment to read). He also goes from nerd (Shape) to a dating relationship which he does not handle well(Pig) to new found maturity (pretty). (SPOILER) In its bittersweet ending, reasons to be pretty's Greg, who still harbors feelings for Steph, is unable to take her back because he realizes that he has outgrown her (and Kent and Carly, for that matter) and is ready to embark on his professional career and all that goes with it.

Coming after his films In the Company of Men (1997) and Your Friends and Neighbors (1998), The Shape of Things' monstrous Evelyn seemed to cement the case for viewing LaBute as a misogynist. However, although misogynist characters are present in each play in the trilogy, LaBute's sensitive portraits of Helen (Pig) and Steph (pretty) are the polar opposite of misogynous.

LaBute's snappy, naturalistic, smoothly flowing dialogue poses no problem for director Michael J. Driscoll's talented young cast. Brad Howell conveys the easy indifference of Greg as well as the later explosive emotional outbursts which mark him shifting his life into gear. Rachel Brown smoothly charts Steph's journey from foolish combativeness to a return to sweetness as she shakily seeks out her new situational location. Jessica Candelmo Lomazzo feelingly portrays the growing anxiety which Carly experiences as she senses that her marriage to Kent may be jeopardized. Michael Bernardi is a very strong and intense Kent. Imagine the schoolyard bully who has grown up physically powerful without curbing the propensity for physical violence barely contained beneath the surface, and you have Bernardi's Kent. His intense performance may throw the play a bit off balance, but it is mesmerizing to watch.

It would be nice to see this LaBute trilogy performed in repertory, but until and unless that day comes, I would suggest that you see each of these LaBute plays as the opportunity comes your way. While reasons to be pretty by virtue of bringing resolution to the trilogy isn't the ideal introduction to it, it would be imprudent not to seize the opportunity to see it now, and back fill The Shape of Things andFat Pig when you are able to do so.

reasons to be pretty continues performances (Thursday, Friday, Saturday 8 pm) through April 30, 2011 at the Alliance Repertory Theatre, Edison Valley Playhouse, 2196 Oak Tree Road, Edison, New Jersey 08820. Box Office: 908-755-4654; on-line: www.evplayhouse.com.

reasons to be pretty by Neil LaBute; directed by Michael J. Driscoll

Cast:
Kent.............................Michael Bernardi
Stephanie.........................Rachel Brown
Greg....................................Brad Howell
Carly............Jessica Candelmo Lomazzo


Photo: Howard Fischer


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- Bob Rendell



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