Reasons to Be Pretty
The story is set during Amsterdam's "Great Tulip Fever of 1636," when rare bulbs became hot commodities and investing in tulips (and tulip futures) became a surefire (if unlikely) way for financial novices to get rich quick. "Everyone making money / There's so much to be made," sings the cast, as we watch Jan van der Boom, an antsy investor, get drawn into the world of tulip auctions. Eventually he becomes so consumed with making money that he loses his moral compass, and pays the price for his avarice. But it's hard to care about a character like that, and Tulipomania gives us no reason to sympathize with Jan. It's an hour into the show before we get a touching subplot about a romance for Jan's daughter, and even that fragment is abandoned just as it gets interesting.
Ogborn intends Tulipomania to be an allegory that comments ironically on 21st century day financial chicanery and our culture of greed. And just in case the audience doesn't get that point, Ogborn supplies a clumsy framing device to make it explicit.
Tulipomania opens in a present-day Amsterdam hash bar where American tourists smoke pot and transform into the 17th century characters. But this device is off-putting and unnecessary, and it doesn't enhance the storytelling. Furthermore, it's hard to get invested in the inner lives of characters who have generic names like Man, Woman, Young Woman, Owner, Waiter, and Painter.
Since the story is so uninvolving, perhaps Ogborn is counting on his music to make a connection with the audience. The music is presented in a very appealing way: a six-piece band hovering over the stage, led by Dan Kazemi and playing his arrangements, makes inventive use of everything from clarinet and cello to electric guitar and ukulele.
But Ogborn's score, like his book, works on an intellectual level but not on an emotional one. Most of the lyrics are pedestrian and unimaginative (although a few clever rhymes stand out), and they feel awkwardly crammed in to fit the melodies. The song titles are either undescriptive ("Man's Song," "Woman's Song," "Tavern Scene II") or cumbersome ("In a Garden That We Two Will Grow"). And the melodies don't soarmost are confined to a limited range (a single octave or so), with no wide interval leaps. It's forty minutes into the show before we get a catchy tune. The songs are stylistically adventurousthere's everything from ragtime to gospel to psychedelic rockbut at the expense of unity; the stylistic choices seem random rather than flowing naturally from the story.
Tulipomania benefits from a dynamic staging by Nolen. There's an inviting, thrust-stage set design by James Kronzer, although the limited playing space doesn't allow for a great deal of movement (there's no credited choreographer). And the show is performed with gusto by a talented and charismatic cast. Jeffrey Coon, Alex Keiper and Joliet F. Harris sing especially well. Adam Heller, as the tourist who turns into the ill-fated trader Jan, is the only vocal disappointment; his voice isn't supple or powerful enough to carry his songs.
Tulipomania has unlikable characters, a contrived setup, a dramatic arc where nothing is at stake, and songs that don't elevate the show to a higher level. It's an ambitious and intriguing musical, but in the end Ogborn's concept is too slender to support the grand statements he attempts.
Tulipomania runs through July 1, 2012, at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $29 to $45 (with discounts available for students, seniors, military, educators, children and groups) and may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at (215) 922-1122, online at www.ardentheatre.org or in person at the box office.
Somehow, I suspect that Neil LaBute, the author of Reasons to Be Pretty, would be happy with the ladies' reactions. He's a master provocateur, and his plays inspire diverse reactions. Reasons to Be Pretty is one of his better works, starting with a blunt, nasty argument between the central characters that grabs your attention right from the opening moments. The problem is that LaBute's characters and situation may be distasteful for many viewers. And even if you buy into the premise, the repetitive nature of the arguments can get tiresome and grating. But if the ladies sitting near me had stuck around for the second act, they would have seen the drama develop, with characters developing from stock stereotypes into complex and absorbing creations, while LaBute turns the play into an examination of honesty and integrity.
Director Maria Mileaf's production never drags; even in its quiet moments, it's absorbing. And all four performances are vivid. Geneviève Perrier captures all the extremes of Steph, full of righteous rage in one scene and compassion in the next. She makes it clear that letting go isn't always easy, even when it's the right thing to do. Daniel Abeles is Greg, the sad sack boyfriend who knows he's done something horrible but struggles for a way to make it right; he makes Greg's journey to a kind of victory worth investing in. Paul Felder captures all the ingratiating sleaziness of Greg's sex-obsessed co-worker Kent, and Elizabeth Stanley is touching as Kent's manipulative wife, who must face up to a truth she doesn't want to face.
It's all played out on Vince Mountain's sleek set, full of grey panels and plain square window panes which help the performances to stand out in contrast.
Reasons to Be Pretty isn't a pleasant play, but it's a compelling one. You may not want to spend time with any of these characters in real life, but you'll have a lot to think about after seeing their story.
Reasons to Be Pretty runs through June 24, 2012, and is presented by the Philadelphia Theatre Company at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 South Broad Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $46 – $59, with discounts for students, seniors and groups, and are available by calling the box office at 215-985-0420, online at www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org, or by visiting the box office.