The ostensible subject of Neil LaBute's Reasons To Be Pretty, now through October 24, 2010, at San Jose Stage, is the difference between the ways in which men and women perceive beauty, especially when it comes to a woman's sense of her own physical attractiveness. Women, the playwright tells us, are at once resigned to the way they look and forever striving for unattainable perfection. Their mates must consider them the most gorgeous creatures who ever walked the earth, even if their faces are, by all accounts, including their own, only "regular."
In fact, Reasons To Be Pretty is really about this entire human condition of being nothing more, or less, than regular, and not just when it comes to one's looks. LaBute's characters could have been lifted from Mike Judge's hilarious film Extract or the animated predecessor to that window into the struggles of white-trash America, King of the Hill. As in Judge's world, LaBute's characters punch the clock in crappy jobs and are a bit dense, a bit slow, at once preoccupied by their lusts and desires and reined in by inertia.
When we meet Steph (Halsey Varady) in the play's first scene, she is laying into her hapless boyfriend of four years, Greg (Robert Brewer), whose unguarded, and honest, observation about Steph's appearance (it was he who uttered the dreaded "r" word alluded to above) has been relayed to Steph by her busybody best friend, Carly (Allison F. Rich). This is not the first time Steph has ripped into Greg for this or that perceived or real slight, and numerous of Greg's goldfish have suffered for their master's indiscretions by being forced to swim to the ocean via the toilet, Steph's favorite means of exacting her revenge.
As Steph, Varady is so hysterical and convincingly pissed off, her dialogue a fire hose of profanity that would make a teamster blush, we wonder if the actress's vocal chords will survive the play's run. Varady holds nothing back, which is why when Greg faces Steph and declares with false bravado, "I'm not scared of you," the crack in his voice cracks up the audience. We sure as hell wouldn't want to be facing this she-demon, who claims she'll be mollified once Greg confesses his sin. We know better, and so does Greg. Kudos to Varady for a gutsy performance.
Equally arresting when we first meet him is Kent (Will Springhorn, Jr.), a classic pig, and not just the male-chauvinist kind. Kent is a slob, a boor, a belching bundle of inexhaustible id. We don't like him, really, but we laugh at him nonetheless, thanks in equal parts to LaBute's spot-on caricature and the shameless, and thus brilliant, performance that Springhorn delivers.
LaBute gives Carly a good deal less to do, but Rich nails her role as the graveyard-shift security guard at the frozen food packing plant where her husband, Kent, and Greg both work. Rich does a fine job as Carly, playing the role of the insecure security guard, who's constantly having to convince herself that her Barney Fife job, as Kent puts it, matters. Carly is mostly a one-note role, but late in the play, in a pivotal scene with Greg, Rich brings something more to the character, convincing us that this skirt in a uniform and a badge is going to be all right after all.
Which leaves Robert Brewer's Greg, the play's anti-hero, bad haircut and all. For all the dialogue's emphasis on the pressure to be beautiful -- the reasons to be pretty of the play's tile -- and its impact on women, this is really Greg's play. Unlike the gregarious Kent, Greg is more like a hermit crab, a loner who huddles in the found shelter of thumbed paperbacks for escape from the mundane existence that is his pathetic life. And what does he read? Poe, Hawthorne, Swift -- the classics. Greg can do better than this stupid job, we think. He deserves better than Steph, and it's clear from their first scene together that Kent could hardly be called a friend. Will Greg figure it out? Watching Brewer find the answer to that question is the great, sometimes grueling fun of this smart and spirited play.
Reasons To Be Pretty runs through October 24, 2010 at San Jose Stage. For tickets and information, visit thestage.org.