Neil LaBute has never been the guy to go to if you’re looking to get all misty eyed. The savagely comic work of this dramatist and screenwriter — whose credits include the plays “bash” and “Fat Pig” and the film “In the Company of Men” — has always been more likely to elicit flinching, wincing, recoiling in repugnance and gasping (or smiling cynically) at the perfidy of the human beast.
But shedding a compassionate tear or two? As one of Mr. LaBute’s unmannerly men might put it, “Dude, you are so totally ...” Well, this being what’s called a family newspaper, I’ll leave you to finish the sentence.
Yet “reasons to be pretty,” which opened Thursday night at the Lyceum Theater in a wonderfully acted production directed by Terry Kinney, may turn out to be the sentimental sleeper of a season that includes star-powered, would-be tear-jerkers like “33 Variations” and the unfortunate “Impressionism.” Making his Broadway debut with a revised (and much improved) version of a play seen off Broadway last year, Mr. LaBute has exchanged misanthropy for empathy, reaping unexpected dividends.
Oh, sure, the characters in this belated coming-of-age story embrace the nastier forms of self-expression long associated with Mr. LaBute’s writing: polluted streams of invective, insults that draw blood, raunchy sexual slurs, face-crushing fights and the killing of innocent pet fish — all deployed in the pursuit of dominance, retaliation, coldhearted manipulation or plain old viciousness. This isn’t just another dark-hued portrait of people who use people, though.
The play begins with what is probably the most intense, expletive-driven, flesh-searing argument in the fiery LaBute canon, delivered by a very, very angry young woman to her soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend. But after this first burst of shouting Mr. LaBute lowers the volume and asks us to listen carefully to the way people speak in the early 21st century and to acknowledge the reflexive, culturally conditioned cruelty in much of what we say. This is not a hardship, since Mr. LaBute is writing some of the freshest and most illuminating American dialogue to be heard anywhere these days.
The same demand — to shut up and listen — is made of the play’s hero, Greg (Thomas Sadoski, in the role he originated last year). An aging young man in a dead-end job hefting boxes, Greg is the recipient of the verbal attack that opens the show. This, it turns out, has been occasioned by his reported use of a certain word to describe Steph (Marin Ireland), his live-in girlfriend and the woman now railing at him with, as Greg puts it, a mouth “like an Eddie Murphy concert.”
That word is “regular,” and while it seems like an awfully, uh, regular word to unleash such a firestorm, it is apparently loaded enough to end a four-year-relationship. “Regular” is how Greg was overheard describing Steph’s face. He tells her he meant it as a compliment, but she’s not buying.
What follows is nowhere near as intricate or obviously dramatic as the teasing, turn-of-the-screw plots that Mr. LaBute normally specializes in. Greg tries to get Steph back and uneasily discusses his problems with two fellow employees: his best friend, the macho Kent (Steven Pasquale), and Kent’s wife, Carly (Piper Perabo, also of the original cast), a security guard whom no one would ever describe as “regular.” Many more arguments occur, and one real bruiser of a fight.
What we’re witnessing, though, is one man’s moral education. Left reeling and dumbfounded by Stephanie’s outburst, Greg starts trying to figure out what inspired it. To do this, without even knowing it, he starts listening with a new set of ears not only to what everyone else says but also to what he says. A man who always brings a book with him to work (by Poe, Hawthorne or Washington Irving), Greg applies a close reader’s interest to the less fluent speech of his friends. And he starts to realize just how fraught everyday communication is.
I suppose that in the wrong hands “reasons to be pretty” could sound like a Sunday school lesson, albeit one with a most unchurchly vocabulary. But Mr. Kinney’s production, which features sets by David Gallo that convey a blue-collar bleakness in deft shorthand, never smacks of the pulpit. Even more than when I saw it last June, “reasons” flows with the compelling naturalness of overheard conversation.
When it was originally staged (with Alison Pill and Pablo Schreiber in the roles now played by Ms. Ireland and Mr. Pasquale) the play included four monologues, one per character, about how notions of physical attractiveness shaped the lives of each. These have all been eliminated, and the cuts have untethered the script from an explicitly stated Big Theme. They have also shifted its center more decisively to Greg, so that we see and hear more specifically through his eyes and ears.
Mr. Sadoski’s performance is the ideal conduit for this vicarious experience. He has an open, impressionable face and a measured voice that register shades of feeling and recognition with a fluid clarity. His Greg is funny, a natural if insecure clown, but, more important, he is that most elusive of theatrical phenomena — an ordinary, decent man who rivets your attention.
As Greg’s far-from-decent counterpart, Mr. Pasquale embodies the more classic LaBute antihero with a furtive ease that sometimes eluded Mr. Schreiber. Ms. Perabo, known mostly as a film actress, has blossomed affectingly in her role, summoning the shaky confidence of a born beauty who is scared that all she has to offer is her looks.
Ms. Ireland is less a powerhouse of rage than Ms. Pill was, and this turns out to work to the play’s advantage. Steph seems vulnerable in a way she didn’t before. You understand the protectiveness as well as the exasperation she inspires in Greg; “reasons” is a real love story now, and its final scene is a gentle heartbreaker.
That scene is hardly filled with romantic poetry. Even the book-loving Greg doesn’t have nobly expressed sentiments at his command. Yet for all these characters words are weapons, far more potentially damaging than fists. Like Harold Pinter, Mr. LaBute understands language as power, even (or perhaps especially) among the unlettered.
It’s telling that Kent, the play’s most vulgar character, is the one who speaks most easily, whipping out clichés and malapropisms as if they were pistols. The others wrestle awkwardly with language, and “reasons” is filled with instances of misinterpreted words and of people groping for mots justes that never arrive.
It’s never easy to say what you mean, or to know what you mean to begin with. With a delicacy that belies its crude vocabulary, “reasons to be pretty” celebrates the everyday heroism in the struggle to find out.
It takes a tender man to make plays as tough as Neil LaBute's. No contemporary writer has more astutely captured the brutality in everyday conversation and behavior; that kind of insight requires sensitivity and soul-searching.
The empathy and moral conviction behind LaBute's cutting prose has never been more obvious than it is in Reasons to Be Pretty (* * * ½ out of four), which opened Thursday at the Lyceum Theatre. Reasons is the last installment in LaBute's trilogy exploring our obsession with physical appearance, and his first work to arrive on Broadway.
The opening scene makes it clear that LaBute has not softened his language for matinee crowds. We see a young woman, Steph, hurling profanities at her boyfriend, Greg, a fundamentally decent guy — LaBute describes him in the play's preface as "one of the few adults I've ever tackled" — who has made a huge mistake: He described Steph's face to a friend as "regular."
It's a measure of LaBute's grasp of gender differences that he realizes how a remark that some men might find relatively innocuous would be a crushing insult to most women. Greg's blunder is a point of entry for a study of the things that men and women do in the pursuit of beauty and affirmation.
The questions raised here are every bit as unsettling as those in Reasons' more provocative predecessors, The Shape of Things and Fat Pig. The working-class characters in LaBute's new play don't have scintillating conversations, and a few scenes in the first act move slowly. But drudgery and complacency are key to the intellectually curious Greg's arc of self-discovery. It makes us appreciate the courage he eventually shows, and understand the limits of that courage.
Thomas Sadoski's wry, earthy Greg is certainly never a bore; there isn't a false note in his heartbreaking performance. The other actors also thrive under Terry Kinney's vigorous but careful direction. Marin Ireland makes Steph's fragility as affecting as her fits of temper are hilarious, while Piper Perabo lends subtler nuance to the sturdier Carly, the unfortunate wife of Greg's buddy/co-worker, a dog named Kent.
Steven Pasquale plays the boorish Kent perfectly, so that he is by turns funny, creepy and pathetic. This is not one of LaBute's smoother operators; like everyone in Reasons, Kent is to some extent a product of circumstance. The playwright asks us less to judge these people than to consider what moves them, and us, to cause and feel pain — and why some of us are better at rising above it.
None of this would matter, of course, if LaBute were a less entertaining writer. Reasons to Be Pretty is hardly a feel-good play, but it will make you feel, and think, more deeply about seemingly mundane things.
As its title suggests, "Reasons to Be Pretty" deals to some extent with a culture in thrall to physical beauty. However, the real subject of this taut, unexpectedly affecting drama is a man forced to take a long, hard look at himself after a flippant comment about his girlfriend's appearance kills their relationship. Nobody's going to call Neil LaBute a redemptive playwright, and even in this reflective mood, he's not exactly forgiving about men's failings and women's weaknesses. But there's compassion and even tenderness running through this play that make it one of his best.
The final part of a trilogy about the contemporary fixation with physical appearance, following "The Shape of Things" and "Fat Pig," "Reasons" premiered last summer in Terry Kinney's sinewy production for MCC Theater. Its transfer, with two of the four roles recast and some smart structural changes, marks the prolific LaBute's Broadway debut.
The playwright grabs attention instantly by shoving the audience into the middle of an explosion of hurled invective and angry self-defense. As Greg (Thomas Sadoski) struggles to defuse the incendiary situation, we gradually learn what caused volcanic Steph (Marin Ireland) to erupt: He was overheard comparing her looks unfavorably to those of the cute new girl in shipping at his warehouse job. The comment was repeated, and Steph is not letting it go.
While it's brutally entertaining, the highly physical opening scene is a little too peppered with clever dialogue and glib side references to be entirely naturalistic in such a moment of sustained rage. But beneath LaBute's manicured exchange of abuse and excuses, he hits on a penetrating truth about how an ill-chosen word or two can undermine or even destroy a relationship. The playwright is at his abrasive best in seeding sympathy for Greg even though he's the one who was out of line, while painting volatile Steph as harsh and unyielding.
But the contemplative play goes significantly beyond culpability or forgiveness. Over a further seven pithy scenes, broken by blaring time clocks, flashing security lights and violent blasts of music, Greg licks his wounds while Steph attempts to move on.
Intruding on Greg's self-reassessment is his night-shift buddy Kent (Steven Pasquale), an arrogant, bullying dirtbag who peppers his conversations with misogynistic, homophobic or racist remarks. An expert, in his crude way, at twisting the knife of Greg's unhappiness, Kent regards himself as a shrewd operator, manipulating his wife Carly (Piper Perabo) without being in any way accountable to her. His affair with the unseen babe in shipping widens the growing split between the two men.
LaBute makes plenty of gnawing observations about the different codes of honor among men and women. But it's when Carly -- a warehouse security guard and the one who blabbed to Steph about the incriminating comment -- turns to Greg, expecting the same degree of loyalty, that his bruising education becomes complete.
The play's series of bristling confrontations and agonizing negotiations has a cumulative power, particularly in the exquisitely painful post-breakup scenes between Greg and Steph, rippling with lingering affection and unresolved issues.
Ireland (taking over from Alison Pill, who played the role Off Broadway) gives off formidable nervous energy, yet she never lets it mask the character's deep hurt, her insecurities or her last-ditch hopes for Greg somehow to make it right. While her work here is completely different from her searing catatonia in "Blasted" last fall, the actress again holds nothing back. In a vicious tirade in which Steph reads aloud a carefully composed litany of Greg's physical faults in a food court, Ireland skillfully shows his humiliation and hurt are equaled by the punishment she inflicts on herself.
Sadoski matches her every step as Greg, the bleeding heart of the play and a breakthrough character for LaBute, who has specialized in unrepentant shits, usually unwilling to learn from their mistakes. When Greg confesses he's unable to live with himself, Sadoski conveys that feeling in his bones; he's not just paying lip service to Steph to make her feel better.
In one beautifully played scene, Greg bumps into Steph out on a date, snarling that she's inevitably setting herself up to be hurt again. "He's a guy, and so it's a done deal," he says. "He will find a way to damage you, and that's a fact." In most LaBute plays, a statement like that might be made with unapologetic pride. But despite his resentment as he spits out the words, Greg knows what he's saying is true, and it continues to eat away at him. Sadoski channels that unease into every moment. His awkwardness is profoundly touching, but there's not an ounce of false sentiment in the performance or the writing.
Pasquale (replacing Pablo Schreiber) captures Kent's pathetic side as sharply as his contemptibility, while Perabo does a nice job illustrating that Carly's vulnerability can't be hidden behind a badge and a uniform.
The play benefits considerably from the removal of four extraneous monologues in which each character addressed the audience to articulate themes now more fully apparent in their shared scenes. LaBute's writing also makes gains by abandoning his penchant for shocking twists, and by shifting from a cold professional sphere into a blue-collar environment.
Economically described in David Gallo's uncluttered sets, framed by container cages of warehouse goods, this is a hard world of narrow options. But the playwright's view of it is uncondescending, his trademark sourness and scorn replaced by surprising empathy.