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Reasons to be Pretty by Neil LaBute

Words cannot describe the expert honesty and freshness of this new American play any better than the words from the script itself.  Surely blogs are subjective, so with that understanding, I can recklessly extol Neil LaBute as our finest living playwright, and Reasons to be Pretty is his pinnacle creation so far.  I made a trip to New York just for the Broadway debut of this play, which is the last part of a trilogy meditating on America's obsession with beauty (after The Shape of Things, which also became a fine film that he helmed with Rachel Weisz and Paul Rudd, and Fat Pig, which Studio Theatre mounted most recently).  LaBute revised this work slightly to cut down some rather didactic monologues after its world premiere Off-Broadway, and the result is a combination of truer melancholy and yet a stronger protagonist in his principled decisiveness.  I have a rich, all the same embarrassing, memory of leaving the Lyceum Theatre in tears, completely devastated by the honesty of what I had seen (to match a coincident personal crisis).  Of course, the play is about so much more than beauty.  It is, all at once, a view into a working-class America that Washingtonians (limousine liberals in particular) privately mock but publicly wrap their virtual arms around anyway; and then, it is a naked case against our vanity; and finally, it sears into the crisis of decision that grown men must make to leave behind all that vanity for higher truths and truer relationships.  That last part is the critical revision that happened when the play went to Broadway; Greg really does hold his head high at the end of the play, even as he has fallen apart into tears.  And despite all the slander lodged against LaBute, depicting merely "a dude's playwright" or even a chauvinist, he has written for Carly a strong moment of resolve; anyone who has suffered personal betrayal (what I'll easier call "cheating," because it happened to me) will find a beautiful moment of release when Carly resolves to leave her spouse.

The delicate balance to be struck when parsing this work is how to treat Kent's character; he's written as a predictable brute (this perhaps to the playwright's discredit), and the worst that can emerge from a performance is comic caricature.  I'm afraid that director David Muse goes there.  And another thing about the experience of watching this production:  Washingtonians giggle and guffaw at socio-cultural nuances in the play that function for context rather than comedy.  Again, this is yet more Capital condescension that actually, to me, is funnier than anything onstage.

After several extensions, the play closes this weekend.  Half-priced tickets are available at Ticketplace.org for all the remaining performances.  The Studio Theatre has posted an insightful interview between the playwright and the director here, and if you read nothing else (and miss this production), have a read of LaBute's elegant essay that served as the preface to the published script if you can find it.  An excerpt:  I have a profound respect for work and workers and communities that live from paycheck to paycheck. The worst day I have had writing is better than the best day I ever had working in a factory, and the people who do it, year after year, because that’s life, and food and rent and child support must be paid, have all my respect.  And:  I've written about a lot of men who are really little boys at heart, but Greg [the protagonist of 'reasons to be pretty'] might be one of the few adults I've ever tackled. The play talks a bit about our country's (and by extension, the world's) obsession with physical beauty but it's really the first coming of age story I've written. A boy grows up and becomes a man.

In terms of recommending media for private meditation at home, Neil LaBute's own adaptation of his play The Shape of Things is nearly flawless (a rare thing, rather like the magic in David Mamet's adaptation of his Oleanna), and he translates well into cinematic form.  (Now, if only he would stop directing puzzling creative black holes like Wicker Man, Lakeview Terrace and Death at a Funeral...)  Most of his dramatic works also are widely available in publication from Faber & Faber.
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