reasons to be pretty was the first of prolific film and theatre writer Neil LaBute’s plays to find a home on a Broadway stage, at the Lyceum Theater in 2009. A sort of relative of his other works – considered part of a thematic trilogy with successful plays The Shape of Things and Fat Pig – the play is devoted to exploring the modern day obsession with physical appearance.
LaBute’s style features dense, rapid dialogue that’s heavily colloquial. It twists; it’s cutting (if you want a ‘like’ comparison, think David Mamet). The success of a production of a LaBute play, particularly reasons to be pretty, hinges on solid direction that facilitates effortless delivery of that incredible heft of dialogue by the actors.
Darlinghurst Theatre Company delivers.
This production is almost a sleeper hit even within itself; it starts broadly, it starts big with a fight between Steph and Greg, a couple who are on the verge of implosion. Steph is so enraged with a throwaway comment of Greg’s (about her face, of all things) that she throws a chair, climbs on a table, does just about anything to try and engage him in her anger. And it’s entertaining, and it’s very funny, but the play really comes into its own when it becomes more realist, when it settles into its own pace.
While Steph tries to deal with Greg’s insensitivities (pointed out to her by her strong security guard best friend Carly), Greg is left with the product of his careless mouth. The play becomes an investigation into life beyond the surface and the dynamic of modern relationships – whether it’s the destructing Greg and Steph or the by all accounts, at least on the surface, perfect couple Kent and Carly – or the friendships between Steph and Carly and Greg and Kent.
It’s probably not the nicest portrait of contemporary friendships and love, but it’s one of the most honest to hit stages in a while; that honesty is a refreshing kind of reality check for Sydney stages. It’s relatable in the most uncomfortable way, because it’s not exactly our good points in society that LaBute holds a mirror to – it’s things like remaining friends with someone you don’t really agree with because it takes too much effort to make the break, or being blind to a partner’s indiscretions because the truth of them could spell and end to things. It’s things like our insecurities, our undeniably human faults that weave so easily into our everyday lives.
These are things that are worth examining. This production does it with aplomb.
If the first act belongs to Steph (played by the wonderful Julia Grace), then the second act belongs to Andrew Henry’s Greg, and the production is so much the better for it. The second contains an almost tonal shift away from the comedic violence and shock language (though the language doesn’t go anywhere) into revealing a more subtle kind of drama that is frequently and unexpectedly moving. Greg is working class and possess a dearth of ambition, but his emotional journey is the heart and soul of the play, and Andrew Henry plays it so well that don’t be surprised if you’re taken to a place where you might shed a tear or two.
[pull_right]this is pure commentary on who we are and who we might be, and for that, reasons to be pretty is hugely important. Don’t miss it.[/pull_right]
The entire company is strong. Carly is played with a coolness by Lucy Maunder that is its own reward in its undoing; her flashes of vulnerability are striking. Stephen James King as Greg’s best friend and Carly’s husband is the actor that best matches Henry; defensive, funny, and masculine, he plays a working-class lothario who has a vague lack of courtesy with ease.
This is an excellent production of a contemporary play that manages to feel incredibly relevant without preaching any kind of message; this is pure commentary on who we are and who we might be, and for that, reasons to be pretty is hugely important. Don’t miss it.