When we first meet the hairdresser Steph (Carrie Coon), she’s in David Mamet land, tumbling forth with a string of screamed and angry epithets aimed at her boyfriend, Greg (Lenny Banovez). They’re in the comfort of their bedroom, though things are anything but comfortable, and the argument explodes, ebbs, and explodes again with the intensity of a modern opera.
But in the final scene of Neil LaBute’s Reasons to be Pretty, things are cool and calm. She’s talking to the same man, and brings him bittersweet news. But the two are collected and civil.
The genius of LaBute’s play, and Renaissance Theatreworks’ terrifically acted production, lies in the difference between those two moments – particularly the fact that the quiet final scene is substantially more disturbing than the shouting match at the play’s beginning.
The play’s opening salvo happens because Steph has heard second-hand that Greg described her looks (her face, to be specific) as “regular.” And it’s the first of many times that human beings are reduced to checklists of graded body parts, like a menu in a plastic surgeon’s office. Greg’s best friend, Kent, is fond of cataloging his wife Carly’s assets in casual conversation – not to mention his detailed assessment of a new co-worker. And Steph herself initiates her breakup with Greg by attracting an audience at the local mall food court with a laundry list soliloquy that might be titled, “What a piece of work is Greg.” And, as it turns out, her ex- is hardly “infinite in faculties.”
LaBute is known as an unflinching vivisector of the fragile ties between men and women, and this is the final play in trilogy of plays that all revolve around the physical and surface attractions between the sexes. But the plays go far below the surface, dealing as they do with the way our insecurities and social conventions shape and coarsen our attempts at that most idyllic of emotions: love.
Here, the men jostle for a solid identity in a working-class world of third-shift factory labor. Kent finds it in his obsessive leadership of the company softball team. And in women, who might be lined up next to the trophies in the drab lunchroom. Greg fancies himself an outsider – the kind of guy who reads Nathanial Hawthorne while downing convenience-store microwave taquitos during his 3 a.m. lunch break. He’s the key to why Reasons has been declared one of LaBute’s more hopeful plays. He’s uncomfortable within LaBute’s “man-world,” and perhaps finds a way to get the hell outta town.
The women, of course, are in the same world – as preoccupied with their looks as the men are with looking. Which is what makes Steph’s final scene so powerful – even as she appears to be the pinnacle of happiness and self-possession, we know she’s essentially chosen Kent’s world over Greg’s.
If that seems a bit schematic, LaBute’s writing – and Renaissance’s production – is anything but. Alongside Coon’s true star turn, Banovez’s Greg is a perfectly rendered, slightly befuddled everyman. Steve Wojtas’s Kent is both familiar and frightening. And Georgina McKee gives Carly moments of true pathos. Susan Fete orchestrates it with great skill and sensitivity, helping her actors find the intricate emotions behind LaBute’s point-blank dialogue.