reasons to be vulnerable
by Harvey Perr
published April 3, 2009
reasons to be pretty
now playing on Broadway at the Lyceum Theater
Neil LaBute doesn’t merely create characters; he gets inside their most twisted emotions and, as if writing were a corkscrew,
pulls these emotions out of them in so many complex ways that we, the audience, feel as battered as they do when the words finally emerge.
Once the bottle is opened, it is impossible to know whether we want to drink of its contents, but somehow the brutal power of LaBute’s
language is, in a strange way, irresistible.
Take the opening tirade of reasons to be pretty – LaBute’s newest vitriolic outburst of
a play – which people are going to be talking about as one of the season’s most extravagant examples of dramatic writing. In it, Steph
literally ends her four-year relationship with Greg because he used a word to describe her which, while hardly provocative, trespasses on
her vulnerability, and which unleashes in her a harangue that manages to be simultaneously corrosively ugly, hilariously funny, and
stunningly revealing. And which pretty much does what it sets out to do: it says goodbye to whatever existed between them. Marin Ireland,
who was a very different kind of hurt woman in Sarah Kane’s Blasted earlier this season,
delivers this verbal vomiting with such blistering vehemence that the theater practically trembles with the fury of her outrage. It must be
seen – and heard – to be believed.
Oddly enough, the play is not about Steph so much as it is about Greg, and about his slow awakening to moral regeneration, and,
in Thomas Sadowski’s career-transforming performance, he, too, froths and foams and growls and whimpers and cries in a barrage of words that
splatter in a thousand splintered directions when they land. But, in Greg, they finally lead to self-discovery and, in the play’s final
moments – without giving anything away – something muted and mournful happens not only to his character but to us. LaBute has brilliantly
taken us along on Greg’s journey from confusion to redemption. I can’t think of another new American play this season that has done half as
Greg and Steph and Kent and Carly are childhood friends who seem to live in a world so circumscribed that one wonders whether
anyone else exists; they work in a kind of Sam’s Club which is captured in all its dreariness and smallness (surrounded by its giant
“family-size” packaging) by David Gallo’s set and in Sarah J. Holden’s costumes. Rob Milburn
and Michael Bodeen’s sound design is a frequent scream of protest against such stultifying deadness, as much as it is a siren warning to
get back to work. Kent is your typical macho pig, a character that LaBute has worked perhaps too many variations on, and is therefore a bit
predictable, but Stephen Pasquale is both childlike and frightening in his total lack of self-awareness. Carly, his beleaguered and
pregnant wife, is the least fully-realized character, but Piper Perabo is sympathetic in her lostness. But it is in his relationship to
Kent and Carly that Greg eventually finds where his emotional connections lie. And when Steph sees the change in him – having distanced
herself from the quartet after that letting go of her pain and anger – she cannot see that it is his sudden understanding of Carly that
makes him get in touch with Steph’s rage, and that, in life, is how it usually ends up. LaBute does not wrap his truth up in any
If there is a weak link in all this, it is in the violent encounter between Greg and Kent that finally releases Greg’s soul from
its primordial cage; the violence is real enough, but their fight is either poorly staged or indifferently played out, and it lessens the
impact of the drama which, up to that moment, under Terry Kinney’s taut direction, has been crescendoing at a propulsive pace.
Still, as someone who has resisted the vileness of Neil LaBute’s vision in the past, reasons to be pretty gives us ample reasons to admire his talents, and at the same time, have hope for
his continuing growth as one of America’s most explosive and compelling playwrights.
harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com