Philadelphia Theatre Company concludes its up-and-down season on a very high note with Neil LaBute’s Reasons to be Pretty. Following The Shape of Things and the incendiary Fat Pig, Pretty is the final play in LaBute’s loosely connected trilogy about America’s obsession with physical appearance.
A deceptive work, Pretty initially appears to be little more than a profane-laced, darkly humorous battle of the sexes. There are verbal exchanges between the two male characters and separate conversations between the play’s two women that illustrate the stark differences between the way guys and girls talk about relationships. But under director Maria Mileaf’s careful guidance, the gender differences take a back seat to what LaBute has to say about responsibility, physical attractiveness, and the connection between selflessness and maturity.
One of LaBute’ strongest attributes is that his plays are devoid of fussiness or unneeded exposition. In Pretty, he wastes no time getting to the point. The inciting incident happens early in the play when Greg (the sensational Daniel Abeles) makes an off-hand remark about his girlfriend Steph’s face to his best friend, Kent (Paul Felder). The remark (made in confidence) is not particularly hurtful or insulting—he basically describes her face as ordinary. However, when Steph (Genevieve Perrier) is informed of Greg’s comment by her best friend (and Kent’s wife), Carly (Elizabeth Stanley in a perceptive portrayal), she’s incensed. Before the incredulous—some might say clueless—Greg knows what hit him, Steph strikes back and, amidst a flurry of insults, abruptly ends their four-year relationship. A shocked Greg turns to Kent for support, but the infantile Kent thinks only of his own pleasure. Instead of consoling his friend, he incessantly brags to Greg about his own sexual prowess, crudely describing his sex life with both Carly and the new girl at work—while his Carly is pregnant with their first child.
Few directors are as adept at casting as Mileaf, who again proves she has a keen eye for talent in selecting the four actors who give life to LaBute’s complex characters.
Felder is not an actor of unlimited range, but the aggressive Kent suits his muscular acting style—complimented by his strapping physique—perfectly. Felder’s Kent is a typical bully, a selfish, egocentric misogynist who is pretty much devoid of any redeeming qualities.
Abeles’ Greg, conversely, is as likeable a fellow as we’ve encountered on any stage this season. The right-fielder on the factory baseball team, Greg is an average-looking guy who is unaccustomed to being the center of attention. Forced into an uncomfortable, no-win situation by Kent’s infidelity, Greg is Pretty’s most intriguing character. His journey toward maturity is by far the most compelling element in LaBute’s shrewdly crafted play.
Greg is the play’s central character, but the production’s success hinges on the actress portraying Steph. Greg’s comment about his girlfriend’s looks is the catalyst that sets the story in motion. If we perceive that Steph’s reaction is that of a vain, absurdly narcissistic woman, the play falls apart. Perrier’s performance, however, suggests that Steph’s response is perfectly normal, and we empathize with the insecurities that fuel her anger toward Greg. Both natural, charming actors, Perrier and Abeles complement each other nicely and their chemistry makes the post-break-up scenes between Greg and Steph especially poignant.
In addition to the excellent cast, Mileaf receives strong contributions from the production’s team of designers. Particularly good is Vince Mountain’s scenic design, which puts the characters’ and their obsession with physical beauty in a noticeably bland and nondescript world that includes an unappetizing food court at a mall and the dull, dreary factory where Greg, Kent and Cary work. The production is also aided by Janus Stefanowicz’s costumes that in many instances reveal as much about the characters sense of self as LaBute’s dialogue.
A fascinating play that draws a clear distinction between petty machismo and real manhood, Mileaf’s commanding production of LaBute’s play proves once again that PTC is the place to go in Philadelphia for serious contemporary American drama.
Through June 24. $25-$59. Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Broad and Lombard sts. 215.985.0420. philadelphiatheatrecompany.org