We meet Steph and the unfortunately loose-lipped Greg (Tom Lehmann) as they are having an epic battle about the above-mentioned comment. He counters that Carly (the “friend”) played by Rachel Fenton, was in the kitchen and couldn’t possibly have heard the conversation. Steph is trying to get Greg to deny that he said it, but he doesn’t and finally admits that what Carly heard was accurate. But he is positively baffled about why she wants to break up over it. I’m not surprised, and I guess that’s how playwright Neil LaBute can line us up on opposite sides of the gender line. The effect of the remark becomes clearer in a later monologue Steph has in which she discusses how she believes she looks and how she feels about it, but the salient point is that, no matter what, a man who loves her should see her as beautiful, whether the rest of the world does or not.
This is Reasons to Be Pretty, and the entire action centers around this one ill-advised observation. Other things happen, of course, but everything is in some way affected by what Greg said about Steph. She is a hairdresser at Super Cuts, so her job is actually about looks; he is a manual laborer in General Foods’ warehouse. Carly is a security guard at the warehouse, and her husband, Kent (Jonathan Ellison), works with Gregg on the night shift (at first). The two men have been close friends since high school and are now, presumably, in their late 20s. Gregg is thinking about going back to college, since his blue collar job isn’t what he wants to do the rest of his life. He is a voracious reader, and we see him variously with Poe, Swift, Irving and, most significantly, Nathaniel Hawthorne. He says he’s reading “The Birthmark,” which is a short story about a doctor who marries a beautiful woman with a birthmark in the shape of a heart on her cheek. He obsesses over this flaw in her perfection to the point that it leads her to agree to surgery and she dies. Steph’s situation isn’t that dire, of course, but I don’t think this particular piece was chosen at random..
The play itself is episodic, with scenes being either two-handers or monologues, and this is where its greatest flaw lies: it’s talky and therefore overly long. While the premise is interesting and the drama nicely rounds off the issues broached in The Shape of Things and Fat Pig, “Reasons” lacks the urgency those two pieces convey. In the former, the man is made over by the woman, then humiliated; in the latter, the man falls in love with an obese woman, and the tension resides in whether he can resist the derision of his friends to be with her. Reasons to Be Pretty approaches outside perceptions of physical appeal from yet another perspective and engages Steph and Greg in a lengthy game of “push-me, pull you” before the final curtain.
Reasons to Be Pretty was nominated for Tonys and Drama Desk Awards, and it was LaBute’s first ever Broadway production (2009), but that doesn’t mitigate the fact that, at least in the NonProphet’s presentation, it is sometimes rather dull. Robert A. Mitchell’s direction doesn’t seem leisurely, so I don’t think it’s his problem; it’s just that the scenes and speeches are simply longer than they should be to hold our interest, considering the subject.
It’s hard to find Rachel Hanks “not pretty,” or to believe her when she tells Greg that she thought of him as prettier than she when they were together. In the first act, she’s rendered “plain” by having her wear no makeup, with messy hair and glasses. (Glasses? Really? Gee, no one’s ever done THAT before.) She does some odd face scrunching which sort of flirts with mugging, and I haven’t noticed Hanks do that in other shows, so maybe that’s to add to her low attractiveness score. However, when she shows up later, all dressed up, made up and coiffed, she’s a stunner, though she still seems self-conscious. Overall, her performance is solid, despite the occasional oddity. Lehmann is quite good, and interestingly, he has more chemistry with Ellison than Steph or Carly. Ellison, Mitchell’s protégé, just gets better every time I see him. He and Lehman have an uncomfortably believable fight at one point, and no punches are pulled when Hanks slaps Lehmann in another scene.
Fenton gets her best moments in a monologue about the perils of being beautiful. It’s hard to feel sorry for her though, so LaBute insures we will sympathize with Carly by throwing another incident into the mix. Ellison and Lehmann are effective in their solos, but Ellison’s premise is specious. The only one who doesn’t fare so well is Hanks, but that’s not her fault. As I mentioned, she does get to explain herself fully, but the words she has to say make her sound rather unfortunately like Stuart Smalley delivering a “daily affirmation” (“[I’m] good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.”)
The technical aspects reflect the NonProphet’s customary bare bones approach—just enough scenery for plausibility, here enhanced with projections of locations. It would be nice if they replaced the sheet on which these pictures appear with a solid screen so the rooms aren’t moving when there’s any kind of breeze though. Mitchell, Brendan Allen (some clever sound choices) and Heather Tucker (everything else, but especially notable costume design) really do manage to pull off a lot with a little.
LaBute admirers and NonProphet Fans (something tells me there may be considerable overlap there) should see this one. Just be prepared to sit down and stay a spell because these people have more to tell us than we probably need to hear to evaluate whether beauty is in the eye of the beholder and to decipher the roots of self-esteem in LaBute’s material world.
Reasons to Be Pretty runs through Oct. 9 at NonProphet Theatre Co. in the Regional Arts Center. You may visit www.nptco.org. Andrea Braun also reviews for KDHX 88.1 St. Louis.
BY: ANDREA BRAUN – THEATRE CORRESPONDENT