Reasons to Be Pretty, Neil LaBute's only play to be mounted on Broadway, asks very few questions about its characters, leaving the audience to fill in the blanks — and not always in the characters' favors. The play leaves you longing for more depth from the script, but luckily the talented actors at the Geffen Playhouse shed light on their roles despite the murkiness of the text.
The play opens during the final moments of Greg and Steph's tumultuous four-year relationship. A random unintentional comment about her attractiveness sets Steph (Amber Tamblyn) on a tirade of four-letter words. Greg (Shawn Hatosy), chronically suffering from foot-in-the-mouth disease, only enrages Steph further with his nonanswers and rationalizations. So she moves out of their apartment and takes his car.
After Steph's departure, Greg returns to work at his late-shift, dead-end job at Costco with his best bud, Kent (Nick Gehlfuss), and Kent's beautiful wife, Carly (Alicia Witt). It was Carly, Steph's best friend, who had originally revealed Greg's offensive quip to Steph. As a result, the tension between her and Greg in the workplace has become increasingly uncomfortable.
LaBute's treatise on America's obsession with beauty tries to provide complex characters, but even though the individuals may be realistic, they're not very interesting. Greg, while incredibly literate, reading from the likes of Poe, Swift, and Hawthorne, is incapable of stringing together a sentence. So while Greg's literacy seems superior, the audience is left wondering if he comprehends what he reads. Is Greg actually very smart but lazy when it comes to speaking, or does he hide a small-minded mentality behind the names of great thinkers? The play glosses over this major character trait. The audience also has little context for the central relationship of Greg and Steph, whom we first meet in the middle of their breakup. Even the offensive comment that surrounds the dissolution of their relationship is hearsay, making it difficult to judge who is in the wrong.
But because of the cast's talent and keen understanding of LaBute's cold prose, this production ultimately succeeds. Director Randall Arney likely worked closely with the actors to build backstories and motivations for their ugliest moments of rage. Hatosy brings warmth and earnestness to Greg. You sense from the actor that Greg wants to be noble but keeps getting into trouble because he does not know how to communicate. Tamblyn, a sensitive actress, adds a vulnerability to Steph, softening her harsh lines so that the audience roots for her. Gehlfuss, playing the ugliest character, with seemingly no redeeming values, is appropriately thuggish. Witt takes a monologue that on the surface is filled with clichés about attractive people imprisoned by their beauty and instills it with desolation.
Lighting designer Daniel Ionazzi sets the scene with harsh big-box store lighting contrasted with, for some scenes, the warmth of a swanky Italian restaurant. Set designer Takeshi Kata seamlessly glides several locations on and off stage and has meticulously decorated the Costco break room in a way that is wholly authentic.
Whether audiences appreciate the dialogue of Reasons to Be Pretty, this production at the Geffen presents it with nuance. The actors, more than the prose, can be credited for leaving the audience with the only traces empathy. And witnessing that is a thing of beauty.