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Paulanne Simmons

"reasons to be pretty" Needs More Thought

Pablo Schreiber and Thomas Sadoski in a scene from MCC Theater’s production of "reasons to be pretty". Photo by Joan Marcus.

"reasons to be pretty"
Directed by Terry Kinney
Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher Street
From May 14, 2008
Performance schedule varies
$59 (212) 279-4200
Closes July 13, 2008
Reviewed May 30, 2008

Neil LaBute who has made a name for himself with plays about casual cruelty and the effect personal appearance has on life and love ("Fat Pig"), is on his hobby horse again with "reasons to be pretty" presented by MCC Theater under the direction of Terry Kinney.

The play, a lament for blue-collar love, focuses on the intertwining stories of two couples stuck in unhappy situations at home and at work. Greg, (Thomas Sadoski), who works stacking packaged goods in a warehouse, is amiable and vulnerable. He has been living with the insecure and hysterical Steph (Alison Pill) for four years before he sticks his foot in his mouth and ends the relationship. Greg's friend and co-worker, the totally obnoxious and macho Kent (Pablo Schreiber), is married to a cute and mostly brainless security guard named Carly (Piper Perabo). But he keeps his eye out for any good-looking and willing young lady who will be susceptible to his questionable charms.

That neither one of these relationships will made it to the end of Act II is a given. The play begins with a screaming match between Greg and Steph that boils down to ten minutes (more or less) of obscenities in which the famously overused f-word takes precedence. The cause of Steph's tirade and Greg's feeble attempts to explain and placate is a remark Greg made, and Carly overheard and reported, to the effect that Steph is not particularly attractive. For this reason, Steph packs up her clothing, takes the T.V. and terminates a four-year relationship.

Not quite halfway through the play, after considerable rumination on the importance (and unimportance) of looks, LaBute apparently realized he did not have enough material to make anything but a frivolous sitcom. The playwright now brings in other relevant material, such as infidelity, betrayal and the limits of friendship. Nice try, but for those who may have left the theater during intermission or have been totally turned off by the nasty and inane characters, it's too little and too late.

The truth is it's hard to blame LaBute for writing a silly play about foolish and spineless people. American theater today is filled with plays by writers who confuse teenage angst and post-adolescent failure to grow up with momentous moral issues. It's the youth culture gone rancid, and perhaps at a time when sex and love, relationships and serial cohabitation are mixed up, one shouldn't expect much better.

It's possible that Kinney could have saved LaBute from some of his worst excesses. He could have advised Perabo to make Carly less giggly and shallow. He could have urged Schreiber to be somewhat less despicable so he would not seem so cartoonish. But perhaps Kinney felt it was more efficient to go for the quick laugh and the easily recognizable. Why challenge the audience with characters that are worth thinking about?

With the help of David Gallo's excellent set, which frames the action in steel warehouse shelves filled with crate loads of packaged goods, LaBute and Kinney do evoke the limitations of working-class life. Kent knows he's trapped in a low-paying grunt job, and there is some evidence that his philandering is a kind of escape. Greg is always carrying a book, reading Swift, Hawthorne and Poe in an attempt at self-improvement. But the melding of working-class themes and the unreliable but increasingly crucial nature of good looks is not easily achieved and does not work very well.

"reasons to be pretty" is not a bad first draft. There are some good ideas here and very funny moments (Steph's reading her list of Greg's physical deficiencies is a good example of the latter). But there are too many overly long scenes, monologues that don't particularly go any place and pandering to an audience deemed to be eager for quick laughs and robust street talk.

"reasons to be pretty" marks the sixth collaboration between MCC Theater and LaBute, who is MCC's Playwright-in-Residence. This kind of relationship between a theater and playwright can be wonderfully productive. It can also allow the playwright to sink into a swamp of self-indulgence.

Attention needs to be paid.

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