In the pantheon of Bad Things That Boyfriends Do, there are some real doozies: Lying. Cheating. Stealing. Abusing.
In “Reasons to be Pretty,” the feisty and well-staged new production of the Neil LaBute play from Open Book Productions at the Voice Shop, the transgression that sets the dramatic wheels turning is this: A boyfriend is overheard describing his girlfriend’s face as “regular.”
No big deal? Not to the girlfriend, the distraught Steph (Kelsey Deroian), who is devastated. In a humdinger of a first-scene fight so toxic the audience practically needs protective gear, she has it out with Greg (Patrick Nalty). Let’s put it this way: a pet goldfish nearly loses its life.
And yet, despite the opening histrionics — LaBute is known for his scathing dialogue in such plays as “The Mercy Seat” and films as “In the Company of Men” — this provocative play about four young working-class friends and lovers is less a male-vs.-female demolition derby and more a thoughtful analysis of the ways the concept of beauty is batted about in our culture.
Greg makes the “normal” comment to his best friend, Kent (Steven Olson). His friend’s wife, Carly (Aubrianne Scott), who overhears it, reports back to Steph. Greg realizes he made a big fumble — that the words came out wrong. But he resolutely declares that his intentions were noble — that he actually offered the remark as a compliment, insisting there are different kinds of beauty.
Adding more complexity is this: Steph admits she isn’t a conventional beauty. Yet she argues, quite persuasively: “Even if I’m not beautiful by world standards, don’t I want to be with someone who thinks I am?”
Which brings up another question: How honest about beauty do we really want to be?
Director Miguel Gastelum has crafted a tight, taut production. As Greg and Steph’s relationship goes through its death throes, we’re introduced to the gyrations of Kent and Carly’s marriage. Through Carly, who has always been considered knockout gorgeous, we are introduced to the flip-side of the beauty equation: People who are good looking have to deal with baggage of their own.
Deroian, a standout in Gastelum’s production last year of “Dog Sees God,” is terrific in this show as well, bringing depth to a role that starts out with histrionics. Nalty, as Greg, brings an easy, graceful stride to his character, a bookish and introspective type who after opening his big mouth spends the rest of the play almost like an anthropologist, observing the strange ways humans interact with each other. (Think about it: Why are people so caught up with minor variations in features, faces, bodies and proportions — those details that separate “ugly” from “beautiful”?)
A solid Scott, as Carly, nails her character’s monologue about beauty. She begins the play as prickly plot device and emerges as a fully rounded character with her own complexities. Olson, as Kent, has probably the hardest acting task with a character more one-dimensional than the rest. Olson pulls off slimy pretty well, but in his chance at a monologue — each character gets one — at the Sunday matinee, he lost some of the intensity and confidence he needed to make Kent more than cardboard.
Adding to the play’s impact is Gastelum’s elegantly simple set design and Regina Harris’ sound design, which creates a small but believable world for the characters. It is not a glamorous world. One reason I think “Reasons to be Pretty” is so interesting is that it is not about the rich and powerful — who often seek to “buy” beauty, incidentally — but about people scraping by. For them, physical attractiveness, or the lack thereof, is yet one more in a series of life circumstances. (You could argue that brains and what sort of family you’re born into are far more important factors in predicting success.)
Yet beauty, while often linked with money, somehow can float lazily apart from it well. It has nothing to do with being a person, LaBute points out. And yet it can mean so much.