Alison Pill and Thomas Sadoski in reasons to be pretty
(© Joan Marcus)
Alison Pill and Thomas Sadoski in reasons to be pretty
(© Joan Marcus)
No one familiar with Neil LaBute's plays will be surprised to hear that his fresh-from-the-computer reasons to be pretty, premiering at the Lucille Lortel, begins with a twentysomething man and woman going at it hammer-and-tongs. Indeed, since him-versus-her recriminations are the prolific dramatist's abiding theme, long-time fans of the playwright would undoubtedly be more shocked if the work began without a heated battle of the sexes in progress. In the end, however, despite the inclusion of some starkly incisive and abusive talk of the sort at which LaBute excels, this two-hour-and-20-minute entry comes across as a "here-we-go-again" enterprise.

The reason Steph (Alison Pill) is warring with boyfriend Greg (Thomas Sadoski) is because she's gotten wind from best pal Carly (Piper Perabo) that Greg has described her as "ugly" to their co-worker (and Carly's husband) Kent (Pablo Schreiber). As the shouting progresses, Greg denies using the word "ugly," insisting he was declaring to Kent that Steph is well worth his loving even if she is "regular." Nonetheless, Steph is having none of Greg's explanation -- and eventually storms out of the house and the four-year relationship.

As time passes, Greg, a fellow who reads the likes of Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne during his lunch breaks, has to not only learn to live with Steph's decision, but to put up with the behavior of good buddy Kent, another of LaBute's arrested-development-boys in a grown man's chiseled-body. Among other things, this means Greg is obliged to keep mum to the newly pregnant Carly about Kent's carrying on an affair with the apparently stunning (unseen) Crystal, another frozen-foods employee and the figure behind Greg's unfortunate problem-creating remark. Indeed, Greg and Kent finally come to bloody blows when the former finally declares he will no longer provide alibis for the latter, an act that later prompts Greg to indulge in a potentially damaging betrayal of Kent.

This turn of events also ultimately leads Greg to examine his maturity -- or lack of it -- and go about rectifying the situation, which is atypical of LaBute's testosterone-overloaded, maturation-challenged characters. But not only does this surprising development come too late to mollify patrons sated by all the verbal attacks and fisticuffs, it feels as if LaBute seems to be saying to critics increasingly impatient with his repetitive concerns: "See, I can write about at least one man who understands what manhood is."

Indeed, it looks as if LaBute is so eager to prove he's come of age as a playwright of actual men and women that he's written this latest canon item in a kind of short-hand. Yes, he tells the audience as much as they need to know about Steph, Carly and Kent and beefs them up with monologues delivered directly into the auditorium, but he hasn't included enough background on protagonist Greg. Who is this guy working for years at an assembly-line job while reading what sounds like the syllabus for a course in early English and American lit? Where did he hone his obviously educated wit, and why does he seem to be exercising it in surroundings so much at odds with his evident goals? Most importantly, why should ticket-purchasers also buy the final, awaited monologue in which he sermonizes on what beauty is and isn't?

Under Terry Kinney's fitting direction and on David Gallo's uncharacteristically cumbersome set, Sadoski does just fine as the blue-collar guy with the book-bag mentality. Coming on strong whatever she's in, Pill matches Sadoski slap for slap. Perabo, a film actress making her stage debut, is both piquant and feisty, a truly appealing combination. And in a portrayal just about diametrically opposed to his previous assignments, Schreiber gives a performance that puts him at the head of the line to play Stanley Kowalski in the next flashy Streetcar Named Desire revival. Yes, they're all pretty, but as arguments for the play, they're not enough reason to go.