Reasons To Be Pretty, seen Saturday afternoon April 11, 2009 at the Lyceum Theatre, 3 slithy toads.
Irish playwright Martin McDonagh has written one of the best plays I've ever seen, The Pillowman, which I like enough to have seen once in London, twice in NY, and once in DC, and will happily go to again if given the opportunity. Let me know if it's playing on a stage near you, and we can do an outing. This year he received he an Acadamey Award nomination for his very pleasant comedy In Bruges. At the dawn of his career, he wrote The Cripple of Inishman, which was first presented in NYC ten years ago in a production that was not admired, and which now returns in a production first presented at Ireland's Druid Theatre, and which was received quite rapturously. Enh. Meh.
McDonagh's plays specialize often in cruelties of a sort, and the Cripple is indeed about a Cripple whose parents were lost as sea several years ago, and whose hopes of making it in Hollywood are kindled by the arrival of a film crew in town. The town is full of gossips, and by the time it's over we'll have heard multiple versions of the night his parents were lost and maybe by the end have the final one. I'll hold on to my memories of The Pillowman or of the gleeful bloodletting of the Lt. of Inishmore, or even on the negative side of the creaky dramatic device that allows The Beauty Queen of Leenane to creak into existence. I saw this one three months ago, and it fades so into the cobwebs of my mind that my general sense of its mediocrity is only confirmed.
A good Neil LaBute play is quite unlikely to creep into the cobwebs of anything. In recent years his plays have mostly been performed way downtown at the Lucille Lortel, which is a very long walk to get to and just an all-around pain in the neck, and I've ended up skipping there and then catching at the Studio Theatre in DC. This play, however, moved uptown to become the first Broadway play for LaBute, and with a theatermania offer in hand the price was very right for an 8th row seat.
LaBute first came to my attention with the gleefully misogynist film In the Company of Man, where two office workers bet on dating a deaf co-worker. In his play The Shape of Things, we're left to ponder how cruel we can be in the service of a good deed when a guy/girl makeover comes with an unexpected twist of the knife. (I saw the play, not the movie, but would recommend the film as it is supposed to be faithful.) Fat Pig, I saw with my Myke Cole, and we had some nice heated debates afterwards. That's about an office worker who dates a very very fat woman and then has to decide whether to keep the relationship going in the face of the reaction from his co-workers.
Those two plays form a trilogy that now concludes with Reasons To Be Pretty. Some interesting connections in all of these, in that Paul Rudd was in the film version of The Shape of Things and now in a movie I saw the same weekend as Reasons. I saw Reasons To Be Pretty with an understudy Anne Bowles playing the female lead, and I see in my Playbill that she was in the DC production I saw of Fat Pig.
Reasons To Be Pretty starts with a heated argument between a couple that are living together over something he said about her. Some of the reviews have given the details of what he said, which we don't get to find out until the argument's been going for a while, and I think it's better that way; no spoilers here on that at least. The two end up splitting up. The balance of the play alternates between: (a) scenes at his workplace, what the set but not the script tells us is a Costco because the pallets include some of various Kirkland Signature products, where the male lead Greg works with Kent on the night receiving team. Kent in turn is putting Carly, a security guard at the same job, into a family way. Greg and Carly do not get along so well. (b) the typical post-breakup awkward scenes Greg and Steph meet at a food court for some follow-on metaphorical eating of one another, when Greg and Steph run into one another at a restaurant, and later when Steph stops by work to tell Greg about the new guy she'll be marrying.
The scenes between Steph and Greg are exceptionally potent. Oh but it's quite a row they have at the beginning! The restaurant scene is filled with every little bit of what you'd dread about living it yourself. The unspoken desire to get back together, the spoken conflict between wanting to re-connect and wanting to unload. The fact that I saw Steph played by an understudy is a reminder that there are lots of good actors in the world and rarely a role or performance so indelible it can't be equalled by someone else, and Bowles acts like she was born to play the role.
I liked less the scenes between Greg and Kent at the warehouse store break-room. I was always rapt when Steph and Greg were on stage, and then bleary-eyed when it was Greg and Kent. And there was something about the relationship betwee Carly and Greg that seemed a little off or perhaps underdefined to me.
But at its best, the writing and the acting here are exceptional, and the best scenes are so brilliantly done that they are likely to linger long long after. Thomas Sadoski is wonderful as Greg, and the chemisty between he and Bowles exceptionally good. There isn't a line-reading that's off as he journeys slowly from the dead-on macho refusal to see wrong of the opening argument to slowly seeing so much that's wrong in his life to an ultimate regret and melancholy.
I'm giving this "only" 3 toads. First, what sticks in this is something that sticks in a lot of drama while the sharper knife twists of Fat Pig and The Shape of Things ask us to dig just a little deeper into ourselves. This is definitely gentler LaBute, but a sharper prod with the stick is sometimes what we need. Second, I do think the play was just so much better when Steph was on the stage, and I don't know if it's the writing or the casting or both or neither that I just wasn't as caught up in the guy-on-guy repartee between Greg and Kent. I'm more certain it's the writing that undercuts the play in the Greg/Carly part of it, though that aspect of it does ultimately go someplace interesting as part of Greg's growing self-awareness.
I would recommend this highly if you're in NYC, and because the Lyceum is a cozy old playhouse with a second balcony it doesn't have to cost you a mint. If I send you the Theatremania offer, you could choose to go upstairs for under $40.