Something surprising has happened to Neil LaBute in the last five years: He seems to have met some people. Not necessarily anyone specific. Just people, whose appetites and impulses are selfish, sure, but not malevolent to the point of abstraction, like so many who populate his earlier oeuvre of men behaving badly. Regular, you might call them, to use the baby-shampoo-mild insult that brings regular-guy Greg so much misery in Reasons to Be Pretty, the initially shaky, ultimately rewarding dramedy that’s landed for what could be another long engagement at the LaBute-loving Studio Theatre.
Billed as the closing chapter of a trilogy that includes the substantial The Shape of Things and the more lightweight Fat Pig, both of which got comfy at Studio in ‘02 and ‘06, respectively, Reasons purports to continue its precursors’ investigations of physical beauty, once again proding and twisting the loyalties among two women and two men. And for a restless first pair of scenes — another protracted, profane screaming match, another depressing conversation between our nominal hero and an at-work frenemy who seems too venal and stupid to function in any nonfictional environment — it feels like a rehash of ideas LaBute has mined more profitably in the past. But what gradually reveals itself to be the play’s true subject is the problem of fidelity. Once that comes into focus, director David Muse’s production veers into fresher, more fertile dramatic terrain.
This might be the first LaBute trial in which someone evolves as a result of all this suffering. Ryan Artzberger’s wrenching performance as Greg, a loafer stacking crates for a living, makes you feel every stinging instant of his crawl towards self-awareness. After his longtime girlfriend Steph leaves him for allowing himself to be overheard describing her visage as “regular” — the poor guy’s devoted reading of the classics doesn’t seem to have helped his vocabulary much — he finds his misery compounded by his failure to stand up to Kent, his philandering pal.
Artzberger is the best thing here, though Margot White’s wounded turn as Steph, the face that launches a thousand f-bombs at Greg as the play opens, is nearly as fine. She lets herself be shrill and wrathful in the early going — her public reading of Greg’s physical and sexual shortcomings in a mall food court is where the play finally shudders to life — and in two scenes bookending the play’s second act, she’s conflicted and vulnerable. We’re not privy to the tonal gradations of her change the way we are Greg’s, but her metamorphosis is just as convincing.
Alas, jerk-du-jour Kent is another half-sketched caricature of baleful misogyny, and Thom Miller doesn’t find any way to animate the part. If he’d smile even a little while making the four-kinds-of-gross observation that a comely coworker is “23 — just starting to fade,” you might believe him enough to muster the indignant shock LaBute wants us (always!) to feel. The rock songs that blare then abruptly terminate over scene changes are another device worn out by overuse. But Muse does this sometimes airless material a favor by having anonymous guys in coveralls wander the hallway in the background of scenes set in a warehouse break room, a small but welcome touch that opens up the world of the story.
Muse can’t fix everything — the confusion over how old these characters are supposed to be becomes a particular distraction — but he massages a literal schoolyard showdown into something more violent, and more credible than we might expect, without sacrificing any humor. That balancing act is Reason enough to be . . . patient.
Reasons to Be Pretty is at the Studio Theatre through May 2. Performance time is approximately two hours, 10 minutes, including one intermission. Contains copious profanity if that sort of thing troubles you.
This review appears in today’s Examiner.