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reasons to be pretty

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Thomas Sadoski and Alison Pill
Photo by Joan Marcus.

The ability of certain words to crumble mountains or command armies is well documented. But leave it to Neil LaBute to prove that a soft, seven-letter adjective is all that's needed to turn a boy into a man.

That magic word is "regular," and so innocuous does it seem outside the context of LaBute's terrific new play at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, reasons to be pretty, that quoting it runs the risk of diminishing its landscape-leveling potential. So it must be qualified immediately by pointing out that it's used - before the play even officially starts, for the record - by a man to describe his girlfriend.

If the thought of LaBute, the theatre's most devious weapons master outfitting the War Between the Sexes, taking this on is enough to make the hairs on the nape of your neck quiver in anticipation, rest assured you won't be disappointed. For while this play might rank relatively low on LaBute's brutality scale - especially compared to the likes of bash, The Shape of Things, and Fat Pig - it's hard to think of another of his that cuts as deep, as quick, or as often.

That's because LaBute has never more acutely diagnosed, dissected, and reproduced the crippling pains men suffer in leaving behind the last vestiges of childhood. That need to hurt and be hurt in return is on some masochistic level central to the young, but is hopefully replaced later by a predilection toward love and respect. The sad and bitter of irony of LaBute's central character here, Greg (played by the outstanding Thomas Sadoski), is that he's unable to differentiate between the conditions.

Pablo Schreiber and Thomas Sadoski
Photo by Joan Marcus.

He insists his slight was meant as a compliment: However unexceptional his live-in girlfriend Stephanie (Alison Pill) may be, he "wouldn't trade her for a million bucks." Of course, when such things are said in a moment of drunken reverie to his friend Kent (Pablo Schreiber) and overheard by Kent's wife and Stephanie's best friend Carly (Piper Perabo), rationalizations generally fester rather than flatter. And the decay is severe enough to send Stephanie into a screaming fit and then straight out the door of their apartment.

All this, by the way, is related in the explosive first scene, which has been directed by Terry Kinney with causticity enough to rival the civil-warring family struggles in Tracy Letts's current Broadway hit, August: Osage County. LaBute's subsequent scenes don't quite match the skin-melting power of the opening, but circumscribe an astonishing adult life being forged in the fires of the modern world, in which every carelessly considered word or action can become unforgivable.

For LaBute is noticeably less interested in Stephanie's reactions and insecurity than in how they, and their close cousins from Kent and Carly, strip away Greg's immaturity in the aftershock of the "R" bomb. Carly's long-standing loyalty to Stephanie is tested when she develops problems of her own; Kent demands fealty from Greg when he starts fooling around in his off hours; and Stephanie proves she's not above (or below?) humiliating Greg by publicly proclaiming an exhaustive (and hilarious) litany of his copious physical failings. Nothing, LaBute reminds us, is coincidental, nothing is accidental, and nothing is completely free of repercussions.

reasons to be pretty, however, is almost entirely free of the acerbic excess you might expect. Not a single blow or a bilious barb is thrown for a gratuitous reason, making this LaBute's tightest and most immediately affecting play yet. When these characters descend from the mount of civilization, they do it only as a last resort, and only for a moment, as if to prove that they really are above the childish impulses that used to define them.

Unfortunately, most of the actors give into those inclinations too frequently to land their emotional uppercuts with the maximum impact. Perabo and Schreiber, as outwardly the most advanced, paradoxically seem the youngest and flightiest. This never works for her - she doesn't give herself far enough to fall when betrayal comes straight at her - but it works for Schreiber in one scene in the second act when his rational facade must break down in a spectacular confrontation with Greg. Pill is the opposite: She's superb when restraint is called for, when Stephanie's resolve is tested beneath the weight of her own compassion, but she's less effective when her rage (and her voice's decibel levels) must be highest.

Sadoski, though, is a marvel, marshaling a sense of easily bruised masculinity and an off-hand sense of humor that instantly catapults him to the forefront of the ranks of prime LaBute interpreters. He'll casually punt out an insult while sipping from a cup of coffee, and absorb the retaliative blows with the unchanging visage of a tackling dummy. But when Greg's heart breaks, Sadoski reincorporates the damage, building a better person from the shattered pieces. Sadoski gains a bodybuilder's stature in the course of just two hours, and is already a chief contender for portraying the most remarkable transformation of the newborn 2008-2009 theatre season.

Even with Sadoski's unshakable honesty, you can't take Greg's every word at face value. "I have no doubt learned absolutely nothing and will be able to apply none of these life lessons to my actual... day-to-day routine," he says, surveying the ashes of the existence he himself burnt to the ground. But you don't believe him for a second. He's shown you that he's learned perhaps the most difficult lesson of all: how to grow up. More surprising and more inspiring still is that LaBute has apparently learned exactly the same thing.

reasons to be pretty
Through July 5
Lucille Lortel Theater, 121 Christopher Street between Bleecker and Bedford Streets
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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