The Cold War Between the Sexes: Neil LaBute's 'reasons to be pretty'

Neil LaBute will probably never shake off his reputation as a misogynist. His notoriously brow- and ire-raising works -- In The Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors and other taut dramas revealed unbridled male cruelty towards women. Alternatively, The Shape of Things showed the treachery women are capable of.

In reasons to be pretty, which opened March 26, 2013 at the SF Playhouse, LaBute, presents a more melancholy take on impasse between men and women. The war between the sexes is still in full throttle, but it's now a cold war, not a blood sport.

SF Playhouse's co-founder Susi Damilano directs this appealingly crisp and smart production. Even without LaBute's established inflammatory tone, the play captures attention with lively dialogue and its tense depiction of abrasive relationships.

The play, which ran on Broadway in 2008, is part of LaBute's "trilogy" of plays about physical appearance. Previous installations of the trilogy, The Shape of Things and Fat Pig, explore societal attitudes about standards of beauty. In reasons to be pretty, no one rejects anyone for being a fat pig, but the description of a woman's face as simply "regular" becomes fighting words.

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Lauren English plays Steph, a young woman who concludes that her boyfriend doesn't find her pretty enough. The curtain goes up on Steph in a tantrum of hysterics, allegations, and castigations. She's leaping on the bed, cursing up a storm, demanding that her boyfriend Greg (Craig Marker) confess to what she says she knows that he feels. She wants to thrash it out, he side-steps. He flounders in her tidal wave of vitriol and meets it with inept sputters.

If men are from Mars, in LaBute's cosmic view, then women are from planet psycho. English and Marker perform this domestic battle with shrewd humor. But the cards are stacked in his favor. He may display typical male-pattern detachment but clearly this chick's a whack-job.

In this four character play of two couples, one dude's an jerk, one's a decent guy; LaBute positions himself to be an equal opportunity observer of bad behavior in both of the sexes. Or perhaps he's an equal opportunity caricaturist.

Kent, Greg's buddy and fellow shift worker in a packing plant, is a textbook misogynist. His disrespect for women, including his wife, is broadly conceived. Still, Patrick Russell's crude performance is skin-crawlingly accomplished. His wife Carly, played by Jennifer Stuckert, evolves from manipulative troublemaker to emotionally insecure victim. Steph also evolves into a less angry, sadder version of herself.

It's Greg who occupies more of a gray area. We know he's a good egg because he spends his lunch hour reading 19th-century novels and trying to stay out of trouble. But try as he might to do the right thing, Steph is a wild card -- summoning an audience at the mall's food court to verbally flog him. Nickie Braucher's set swivels from bedroom to factory lunch room to mall as months pass and relationships erupt and fade.

Ostensibly, Neil LaBute balances the blame. But his Mamet-like refereeing tilts towards the rationality of men. In Oleanna David Mamet tried to temper his masculine posture with a he said/she said fairness, but his biases were clear. Likewise, LaBute gives us stereotypically aggressive Kent, but Greg is the brooding moral voice with authorial common sense.

reasons to be pretty has much more heart than the theatre of Mamet. With its strong cast and table-turning action, LaBute's play keeps the audience fully attentive and open to his upcoming sequel, reasons to be happy. This play, opening next month at the MCC Theater in New York, will star The Office's Jenna Fischer.

What are the reasons to be pretty? The advantages may not outweigh the pitfalls. LaBute is mostly interested in revealing the damage our preoccupation with pretty can do. LaBute's characters have shown that estrogen and testosterone may be magnets but inevitably they combust. In reasons to be pretty, LaBute entertains without attacking, but ultimately he reveals the hopelessness of happiness.

reasons to be pretty runs through May 11, 2013 at the SF Playhouse in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit sfplayhouse.org.

All photos by Jessica Palopoli.

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