Reasons to Be Pretty was one of the few Neil LaBute plays that I had neither seen nor read. After having read those other plays (and his short story collection Seconds of Pleasure), I’ve become accustomed to LaBute’s narrative tactics: people being monstrously cruel to each other, characters conniving schemes, twist endings revealing the characters as even more monstrously cruel, etc.
But here, LaBute relies less on tricks and more on a close examination of two couples. The surprises come from their dynamic and their histories.
Reasons, playing now through April 2nd at the BCA, is the last part of a trilogy that began with The Shape of Things and Fat Pig, all of which center around our ideas of physical beauty. In this one, Steph (Angie Jepson) finds out that her boyfriend Greg (Andy Macdonald) was overheard telling his friend Kent (Burt Grinstead) that Steph’s face was average. She flips out on him in a vituperative, expletive-riddled opening scene. This one comment sends their relationship spiraling, opening up issues about their relationship that were heretofore unexpressed.
The title may be slightly misleading here. Don’t go see this play thinking it’s going to be a meditative discourse on beauty. The characters don’t sit around talking about why our society puts so much emphasis on appearance. It is not, ultimately, a philosophical work. And this is a good thing.
Instead, LaBute is interested in watching people deal with the many ways beauty and love and interconnected and, yet, somehow, separated.
Greg appears genuine when he tells Steph that what he said was meant as a compliment. You see, he said that, yes, while her was average, he wouldn’t trade her for a million bucks. If men are all obsessed with sex and beautiful women, then Greg saying that he loves Steph despite not being the conventionally gorgeous, then, in his maybe slightly immature mind, it is a compliment.
There are a few moments of real tenderness. After being apart for some time, Greg and Steph bump into each other at a restaurant, each going on a date with someone new. The ensuing conversation is wonderful, evoking the kinds of nostalgic feelings we all have about past relationships.
They’re awkward, they stutter and you can see that, although things have grown complicated, they really did love each other once.
The actors here (Jepson, Macdonald, Grinstead and Danielle Muehlen) do very well with LaBute’s naturalistic dialogue, keeping their respective characters grounded enough so that the audience’s sympathy can move and sway as the story develops.
There is a woman who prompts this entire story and who is never seen. Her name is Crystal. She works with Greg and Kent and is, according to them, absolutely stunning. It was a conversation about her that led to Greg saying that Steph had an average face. As I watched the play, I kept thinking about this woman, and I found myself imagining what she looked like. Was she really prettier than Kent’s wife Carly? I wanted to see her.
And maybe this is LaBute’s point: we can always wonder if there’s someone out there more attractive than our partners, than the person sitting in front of us, and we have to figure out how much that matters.
[Reasons to Be Pretty. Now through 4.2.11. Boston Center for the Arts. 527 Tremont St. South End, Boston. 617.482.3279. $30-$55. speakeasystage.com]