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reasons to be pretty

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 2, 2009

reasons to be pretty Written by Neil LaBute. Directed by Terry Kinney. Scenic design by David Gallo. Costume design by Sarah J. Holden. Lighting design by David Weiner. Sound & music design by Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen. Fight direction by Manny Siverio. Cast: Marin Ireland, Steven Pasquale, Piper Perabo, Thomas Sadoski.
Theatre: Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th Street between Broadway and 6th Avenue
Running time: 2 hours, with one intermission
Audience: May be inappropriate for 12 and under. Children under the age of 4 are not permitted in theatre.
Schedule: Tuesday at 7 pm, Wednesday through Saturday at 8 pm, Wednesday and Saturday at 2 pm, Sunday at 3 pm.
Ticket prices: Orchestra and Mezzanine (Rows A-F) $111.50, Mezzanine (Rows G-J) $81.50, Balcony (Rows A-C) $51.50, Balcony (Rows D-G) $31.50.
Premium Seat Price: $176.50, Friday - Sunday $226.50.
Tickets: Telecharge

Thomas Sadoski and Marin Ireland
Photo by Robert J. Saferstein.

The flow of blood may have slowed to a trickle, but the pain is as vibrant as ever. For his Broadway debut with reasons to be pretty, the brutally beautiful play that just opened at the Lyceum, the famously controversial Neil LaBute has pushed aside the usual destructively dangerous he-she relations he normally documents in favor of revealing his softer-than-predicted heart. And what a dazzling trade he's made.

Rather than diffusing the details of either the war between the sexes or the wars within the sexes, as he's done in previous plays, he tackles both head on as the same battle. The resulting play, which has been directed here by Terry Kinney and is fueled by a star-making performance from Thomas Sadoski, may be LaBute's tamest, but it's also his best.

This may come as little comfort if you prefer the "old" LaBute, of the despondently nasty films In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors, or the aggressively nasty plays The Shape of Things and Fat Pig. But as the once-irredeemably weird Tracy Letts proved last season with his modern pseudo-epic August: Osage County, categorizing writers is the surest way to ensure they astonish you. LaBute's own evolution is evident throughout reasons to be pretty, not because he doesn't give you what you expect, but because he does it in ways you don't expect.

Even if you know to anticipate great fights, you can't be prepared for the paint-peeler on offer when the lights first go up. Steph (Marin Ireland) and Greg (Sadoski) are already in the thick of it, she hurling lead-plated invectives at him (frequently limited to four letters in length) and he trying and failing to defend himself against an onslaught that would level armies.

His crime is that he called her face "regular" when talking to his friend, Kent, which Kent's wife overheard and instantly passed on to Steph. That Greg meant it as a compliment - he concluded the sentence by saying "but I wouldn't trade her for a million bucks" - is irrelevant. The damage is done, and this relationship of four years is apparently over before we've ever even gotten to see it. Where is there to go from here?

Thomas Sadoski and Steven Pasquale
Photo by Robert J. Saferstein.

Everywhere, it turns out. There's Greg's journey of discovery, as he learns the depths of disappointment and doubt his seemingly innocuous statement caused and that he cannot win Steph back with his usual smiles, flowers, and sweet talk. Then there's also the case of Kent (Steven Pasquale) and Carly (Piper Perabo), who are loaded with troubles of their own that Greg's transgression only exacerbates. The behavior Carly finds so objectionable in Greg is on vivid display in her own husband - what propels the allowances she makes for him, and how far is too far for Kent to go?

It's all wrapped in the dreaded professional and personal ennui that so consumes everyone's late 20s, as they begin to see their lives haven't gone where they wanted them to. Steph has sacrificed a lot to stay with Greg - is his sacrifice of college (he studies Swift and Poe in his downtime) and personal betterment equivalent? And is that more or less childish than Kent, whose notions of getting ahead are wrapped around day shifts rather than night shifts and a sexy coworker he openly says his wife pales next to. Who's the bigger child here?

From Greg and Steph's vicious exchanges in the bedroom and at a mall food court (the latter resulting in the season's most pungently hilarious scene, when Steph reads aloud a two-page list of Greg's most egregious physical inadequacies) to Greg's own crystallization in a restaurant lobby and his coming of age (and Kent's regression) on the baseball field, the play is from start to finish about people resisting, refusing, and relenting to the passage of time - as in practically every other stage or film LaBute work.

But for the first time, both genders are equally matched - taking sides is not possible. If you think the conflict between Greg and Steph is overblown, wait a few minutes - he'll explain something that will change your mind, she'll identify another context to an utterance from Greg that you haven't thought of but seems more valid than his stated intent, then she'll go on an all-out attack and your sympathies will shift again... The transfers of power do not cease until the last minute of the last scene - at which point it's still not clear who the winners or losers really are.

This is mature writing not just for LaBute but for anyone. And it's progressed even since the show's Off-Broadway premiere last year - some of the harder edges have been sanded away, and the removal of four soliloquies has stripped the play of its broader, more overtly theatrical implications. But if these changes have siphoned off a bit of the play's acid, they highlight the characters' necessary lack of introspection and less-obvious abilities to hurt. Taken in concert with Kinney's direction, which is now even bolder than it was, they give much stronger definition to these people's difficult existence.

So, for that matter, do the two new actors who've joined this production since Off-Broadway, both of whom improve on their predecessors. Ireland's Steph is so fully self-conscious that her every doubt about herself becomes a facial feature, whether it's twisting her cheeks during her utmost rage or relaxing her forehead when she finally gains the acceptance she seeks - there's never any question that brutality doesn't come naturally to her, but she can wear it when she has to. As Kent, Pasquale is gleefully dirty with no hint of affectation, intoxicatingly believable as the flesh-focused devil whose gaze does not extends beyond his own nose. Perabo, recreating her Off-Broadway role, is much as she was: Her Carly is very bright and off-handedly likeable, but evinces no grasp of the gravity of either what she's living or criticizing - she seems too much of a functionary in a work that requires everyone's active participation.

Sadoski, although excellent Off-Broadway, is even better now. He completely leverages his immense Everyguy appeal, making his progression from victimhood to self-reliance and optimist to realist a joy. His soul-tethered look of awestruck horror as Steph publicly catalogues his faults is golden, the shattering betrayal and loss he conveys when a restaurant encounter with Steph finally convinces him how deeply he wronged her, and his triumphing over Kent's diminishing worldview at the evening's climax are (or at least should be) the stuff Tony Awards are made on.

He succeeds so totally because he makes you see in Greg all the desperateness, defiance, and debilitating qualities you want to ignore but shouldn't - because salvation lies through, not around them. Sadoski shows as Greg exactly how an imperfect man can take control over the most unknowable parts of himself without sacrificing his essential being. This pinpoints the greatest deception of reasons to be pretty: You may think you're not seeing a LaBute play, but in fact you're seeing the most LaButian yet. When Greg emerges as the symbol of surviving the adversity we create for ourselves, it's obvious that he - much like the playwright that created him - is a boy who's finally learned the value of being a man.

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