Reasons To Be Pretty at Studio is a whole lotta ugly.
And that’s good news for audiences who like theater that’s hard to look at. For all the emphasis on physical beauty in Neil LaBute’s cruel and captivating play, the characters are about as attractive as Dorian Gray’s portrait after a lifetime of sin.
The third in a trilogy of plays about appearance—Studio’s delectable productions of The Shape of Things and Fat Pig were the other two—Pretty looks at clueless men who view females as nothing more than eye candy and the women who willingly supply the visual sweets.
Set in an anonymous warehouse/megamart and other spots in an undistinguished suburb, Pretty, shrewdly directed by David Muse, probes the inner workings and surface appeal of four people who aren’t exceptionally bright, but still manage to cause an extraordinary amount of harm.
It is a regrettable choice of words that lands Greg (Ryan Artzberger), a book-reading slacker, in the hot seat with his hairdresser girlfriend Steph (Margot White). The play opens with a jolt, a blistering fusillade of fury as Steph goes ballistic after hearing a comment about her face being “plain” Greg made offhandedly to his friend and co-worker Kent (Thom Miller), a good-looking jock who has an overly healthy, one might say obese, opinion of himself.
Greg does not understand what’s the big deal and why he’s in so much trouble. Steph sees Greg’s remark as a serious breech in their relationship, maintaining that if he loved her he would consider her beautiful and want to look at her face without judgment. Not liking her looks is the unkindest cut of all.
Babedom is not an issue for Kent, since his wife Carly (Teresa Stephenson) is a 10 and must maintain that status—one of the play’s most casually shocking moments has Kent saying he wants Carly to hit the gym one day after giving birth to start working on her big pregnancy booty.
Yet Kent is not content with a gorgeous and upright wife—he’s cheating with the office hottie. And that Greg becomes complicit in this affair while trying to patch up his heartache with Steff is one of the crushing entanglements of Mr. LaBute’s dark comedy.
The cast works deftly to get underneath the characters concerned with surface appearance. Mr. Miller imbues Kent with an energy that is at once ingratiating and a little bit hostile. Beneath that hunky exterior is a schoolyard bully and it is a delicious moment when he gets his comeuppance and pouts and stomps like a toddler. Mr. Artzberger is spot-on as Greg, for whom drifting and just getting by has become an unfortunate way of life. Miss White makes an indelible impression as the fiery and insistent Steff, and Miss Stephenson shows the perceptiveness and pain beneath Carly’s “perfect” exterior.
The Shape of Things and Fat Pig relied on shock value, as Mr. LaBute revealed the hideous underbelly of a society obsessed with six-pack abs. The scorn for the less-than ideal is visceral in Pretty, yet the play is tempered with sadness and a sense of rue.
The pretty monsters from Mr. LaBute’s other plays are alive and kicking—and brutally funny—but there is an undercurrent of tenderness in the relationship between Greg and Steff. He is a decent guy who is dumb about women and she is a lovely woman who leads with her heart. How could two good people be so wrong for each other?
Reasons to Be Pretty
By Neil LaBute
Directed by David Muse
Produced by Studio Theatre
Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard
REASONS TO BE PRETTY