There is an expression in Spain when someone speaks about themselves too much and too highly, which roughly translates as “What, you don’t have a grandmother?”. Because the assumption is, of course, if no one else in your life gives you affirmation, at least you should have a grandmother to tell you you are beautiful and perfect and the most unique little snowflake anyone ever did see.That is, after all, the job of a grandmother, no matter what Woody Allen says. But isn’t that also the job of a boyfriend? To find you beautiful? And if he doesn’t, well, what exactly does THAT mean?
All dating manuals and advice columns aside, let’s take a look a Neil LaBute’s reasons to be pretty, now playing at Philadelphia Theatre Company in all it’s e.e.cummings-style lack of grammatical syntactical glory, shall we? The final in LaBute’s trilogy of “Beauty Plays”, the piece revolves around the relationship between an oblivious but harmless enough fellow and the comment he makes in passing about his girlfriend. That one moment, unseen but much discussed, becomes the crux of their breakup, and the repercussions of that statement echo through their lives and the lives of those around them.
Starting in the middle of a knock-down drag out fight, meek and milquetoast Greg (Daniel Abeles) confronts his furious girlfriend Stephanie (Genevieve Perrier) who has just been informed by her friend Carly (Elizabeth Stanley) that in a causal conversation with Carly’s husband/Greg’s friend Kent (Paul Felder), Greg made a comment about Stephanie. And it was less than flattering. Defensive and deflecting, but also genuinely confused, Greg hedges and ducks as Stephanie fires off verbal abuse and turns the air blue with cursing. Because the real issue here is that these two people don’t actually understand each other, they don’t speak the same language, and they never really have. But does any man really understand any woman, and visa versa?
And what, exactly did Greg do wrong, here? Well, from a female perspective, he’s not what he did, it’s what he didn’t do. He didn’t find his girlfriend attractive. He didn’t think she was pretty. And because he doesn’t find her pretty, and as a result, Steph can’t actually feel pretty, and pretty, as humble a word as it is, is something that everyone should have the right to feel. And so Stephanie breaks up with Greg, a move that baffles him completely. And the rest of the play? Well, it’s just conversations between each of these four characters who, in their limited grappling ways, try to figure out what it is they want and what it is they are getting from the people in their lives.
So is it a play about the way we look, or is it a play about the way we ARE? And are they one and the same, really? Maybe. But is that actually an interesting thing to watch? Well, sometimes. And sometimes, not so much. LeBute’s script contains four interesting people, but a rather boring set of situations. Their lives are honestly mundane, with most scenes taking place in Carly, Greg and Kent’s break-room at their work (some sort of warehouse, one must assume), or public places across their habitat (which is suburban? Maybe? Honestly, we have no idea where this is happening geographically, and while all characters in the cast are gainfully employed, their jobs are more downtown then wall-street so this could be happening anywhere, which might be the point, but it also might add to the lack of specificity that haunts the script).
And unfortunately, this production doesn’t actually add many layers of individuality to this unrooted tale. Vince Mountain’s rather austere and cold set design dwarfs the four actors and surrounds them in an icy world of white and grey. Of course, the grandeur of the theater’s stage does no one any favors in its scale, forcing this intimate story about little things to look silly in comparison. Janus Stefanowicz’ decent costume design has the most time to play with the character of Stephanie, otherwise it’s uniforms and jeans, appropriate but uninspired. David Lander’s lighting is serviceable and Bart Fasbender’s sound, which we hear the most of in the pre-show and intermission indie-light tunes, is probably the most fun design element present, even if it has very little to do with the show itself.
But the biggest issue comes from Maria Mileaf’s direction. Her pacing is ever-so-slightly off, and as a result every scene feels like it drags somewhere, despite valiant efforts from all four actors to stay committed to the work. As a result every moment is stretched to sagging, rather than taut with emotion, and instead of whizzing by the play lopes along at a leisurely pace, losing it’s audience. From the very first scene, which should feel like a smack in the face, indeed reads like a mosquito bite, vaguely annoying rather than invigorating or shocking. Perrier, (though much to pretty for the role) who leads the cast in excellent and occasionally heart-breaking work, brings fire and determination to the role of Steph, and she pairs well with Abeles’ sweet and competent depiction of the incompetent Greg, but the air in their scenes takes the wind of their sails, and the moments that should be tense and emotionally saturated just feel stagnant when they go on for so long. Felder’s Kent is appropriately disgusting, and the satisfaction of seeing him physically beaten by Greg (while it strains the imagination, given the physical differences between these two actors) makes for one of the best moments of the show. And Stanley’s Carly, a role that is underwritten to say the least, is lent color and heat by the actress if not by the playwright.
But all together the effect is more one of mediocrity then empathy. It’s a story about people who talk a lot, do very little, and often hurt each other through their sheer lack of consciousness. The men in LaBute’s work frequently have the same problem, that is, they just don’t really believe that anyone else around them is real, so they live life that way, and then frown at the negative results. And yes, one recognizes that actually acknowledging that A. other people around you exist and that B. they don’t just exist, they also matter, may be the hardest task asked of a human. But it’s also the whole job of a human. And watching a small group of people slowly realize that amid quiet lives of comfort is less interesting then it might sound.
It could, of course, be much worse, however. At least LaBute closes his piece with some sense of resolution, of growth, of healing and moving on. Which is nice, given how likeable Perrier, Abeles and Stanley are (this isn’t a slight to Felder as his character is inherently unlikable). But we don’t really ever care enough about these people to root for their victories. This piece might be holding a mirror up to life, but it’s showing us that which is the unremarkable, and not in a way that makes it fresh and new, but rather in a way that paints it gray. And if we wanted gray, we could just look at our own lives.