Neil LaBute has really been impressing me with his play writing style. From the first show of his I saw (Fat Pig) to In A Dark Dark House, he’s managed to capture both the natural way in which modern people speak and also the horrible way people lie to themselves and others. It the kind of conundrum I really like to watch play out on stage, and for this reason I was excited to see Reasons to Be Pretty when I saw it was coming to the Almeida.
Reasons to be Pretty is about a normal Joe (or Greg – Tom Burke) and the people he works with, and his attempts to navigate the turbulent waters of cross-gender communication. Or so I thought as the show started and Greg was going toe to toe with his girlfriend Steph (the amazing Sian Brooke), whom he has just vilely insulted. Or has he? When the words are finally extracted from his mouth – to much disgust from Steph – you have to wonder Just what is she flipping out about? or, alternately, How does he not get how offensive that was? Or, actually, you should be thinking both, wondering Why does that one sentence seem so different from opposite sides of the bedroom?
To be honest (although I loved the fight scene), I worried at this point that the play was going to be a big boring “And now the clumsy man learns to have some sympathy for poor little sensitive women with our horribly polluted brains” with a cutesy happy ending. This feeling was only compounded by the extreme asshattery of Greg’s best friend, an egotistical asshole who says one thing in front of his friend and another when is pregnant wife/girlfriend is around. Said wife (who works at the same place as the two men) is supposedly hot (which is why friend stays with her) but also appears stunningly ignorant and self-righteous. In fact, as a couple they’re two of the most unappealing characters I’ve seen on stage in ages. You can only assume they’re there as a foil for Greg’s “journey of self discovery,” although how he’s ever going to get a word of sympathy out of either of them is a mystery.
But LaBute doesn’t go for this obvious story. Instead, he starts digging much deeper, into the nature of friendship and the rules that tie people together. We also get a serious examination of the rules Greg has written for himself, and even though he comes off initially like a checked-out loser, when he gets to a crisis point (more than once!) where his values and his actions come into conflict, he manages to execute flying paradigm shifts that would do credit to a cat being dropped into a bathtub. You can practically see him morphing into a vertebrate mid-scene.
At the end of this show, I came away with two major wows (other than the fact it was overall awesome): the set, which was basically a rotating steel packing container with sides that flipped down to create different rooms; and Sian Brooke as an actress, who I’ve now seen in three productions in one year, two of which totally (and successfully) hung on her emotional range to convey a deeply troubled character. And there was a third minor wow: this show is the first time since I’ve been in England that I didn’t catch a single bobble in the accents of the characters. I was actually surprised to find they were all English – I thought the way they spoke was a bit stilted, but I thought it was because they were Californians trying to sound like they were from Jersey. In fact, the whole effect, of watching an American play set in America showing (not at their best) American people actually made me a bit homesick. On the other hand, I’m not the least bit sorry that I’m not having to come home to any of the characters this play was about; but the fact LaBute created four people who seemed real enough to have a life before and after the show (I wound up arguing about how Greg and Steph ever got together in the first place with the people I went with) is a sign of a really well-written show. It’s on for six more weeks; if you value new writing and solid story telling, go see it.
(This review is for a performance seen on Saturday, November 19th, 2011. Apparently there is a TV celebrity in the cast but as I did not recognize her when I was watching the show I’m not going to say who she was though she did a completely fine job in the role of “the pregnant girlfriend.” However, I feel like her casting is responsible for the show being substantially sold out so I’m going to try to encourage people to go because it’s an awesome show rather than feeding any further interest due to celeb casting. Also, while Siân Brooke is generally amazing, I think it’s time for her to play someone rich, or at least middle class, just for variety’s sake.)