reasons to be pretty

It's a guy thing. This play by Neil LaBute, reasons to be pretty, starts out in familiar LaBute territory. A couple is having a fight — an epic battle, one we instantly peg as a breaker-upper. Greg (Bobby Haworth) is helpless before the fury of Steph (Lauren Dolk). Steph unmercifully questions Greg, asking what he said about her to co-worker Kent (Mike Yager), screaming at him not to lie to her.

Steph's best friend Carly (Rebekah Stevens), a security guard at the big-box distribution center where they work, heard what he said: that Steph is "regular." Greg is pathetically guilty and can't deny it. He argues that it was a compliment, to no avail. The truth scalds Steph, who goes apoplectic. Helpless before the onslaught of a woman scorned, Greg gets our immediate sympathies. But by the time he screws up his courage, Steph's out the door. (Nobody in contemporary theater paints a harpy with such glee as LaBute.)

But wait a minute, this 2008 play, revised in 2009, isn't the same LaBute from Fat Pig, In the Company of Men or Nurse Betty. There's something different here. It's sharp; the dialogue still cuts; the characters are still hapless; the males still clueless. But there's a new sympathy to them. Greg's not a pig at all. That would be Kent, who's married to pregnant Carly, but running around with the hot new girl in shipping, unseen Crystal.

While LaBute's dank world of "men behaving badly" is very much in evidence thanks to Kent, it's now counterbalanced thanks to Greg. The world of LaBute has softened — not to the point of being gooey, thankfully — but his trademarked black-and-white misogyny has a deeper, more colorful edge. If the theme of the play is "reasons to be pretty," it takes off in expansive, fanciful ways.

Greg doesn't behave badly — he can't, it isn't in him anymore, and he has a hard time explaining why. It's all new to him, too. He reads too much, he shrugs, as if that might explain his new feelings. (Every time we see him, he's reading another old master: Poe, Hawthorne, Washington Irving.) There's much more to him than being a box stacker. After getting a whipping from Steph, he spends the rest of the play trying to figure out how to make amends.

Of course, nobody talks with such dramatic hesitance, yet with such vivid imagery, as a LaBute character. They're dead-end people in dead-end jobs — all regular, you might say. But even though they accuse each other of the failure to communicate, that's all they do — talk — magnificent, raunchy talk, as well as delicate, filigreed talk. They misconstrue each other with abandon. A LaBute conversation is musical and wild, with tidal flow and punch, unlike anything in real life.

You find that during this play, you need to breathe in slow, steady increments. If you don't, the gasps will leave you breathless. And not many plays are as funny. This comedy of manners — even during the opening excoriation — is full of wit and smart observation.

Director Mark Adams keeps LaBute's pot on steady boil, while his smart, talented cast cooks up this fully realized meal. Haworth embodies Greg with wide-eyed confusion and smart-ass comedy, tossing off his under-the-radar one-liners with Borscht Belt timing. Although rudderless, he refuses to be a loser. From gorgon to somewhat grown-up, Dolk as Steph does indeed get prettier the more distance she puts between herself and Greg. Stevens plays Carly — pregnant and deserted, with few options — with simplicity, great heart and expressive bangs. And within the luminous acting foursome, Yager shines. He brings blind swagger and unquenchable ego to prehistoric Kent, LaBute's alpha male. Pleasure's his brute right, and he tramples anyone to get it, even himself. His is a glowing performance, rich and deep, comic and chilling.

And when, at fade-out, Greg gives The Man the double finger, it's the ­perfect curtain act of defiance. And a great big step forward for LaBute.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover