Thursday, April 16, 2009

New York, Spring 2009 -- Day One "reasons to be pretty"

One day, I'd like to see Neil LaBute and David Mamet go after each other for the title of Alpha Male Playwright. The Bard of Testosterone. Let's get 'em in the same room, liquor 'em up and let them really go at it. My money's on LaBute, if for no other reason than he seems to be trying harder at representing for the penis-owners, while Mamet is softening up, putting out sweeter, creamier work like the farce "Romance" or 2007's terrific satire, "November". LaBute, on the other hand, seems to keep his foot firmly planted on the accelerator, driving his audiences as quickly as possible into territory where hard, painful things happen. Things men cause, then move on from because that's what men do. His plays have a well-deserved reputation for stripping away niceties and laying bare the bad things that bad people (men and women) do.

"reasons to be pretty" is LaBute's latest, but his first foray onto Broadway. He's spared little of the emotional cruelty and misanthropy that have marked his work over the years. Here his focus is the fragility of human connection. What is the nature of love? On what is it predicated? More important, even if we can answer those two questions -- even if only for ourselves, can we find our way through all the obstacles that prevent deep connection between humans? You know, jealousy, envy, low self-esteem (why would anyone love someone like me?) and inflated self-image (how could anyone not love me?)?

At curtain, Steph (Marin Ireland) is fighting with Greg (Thomas Sadoski), her boyfriend of three years. He's apparently said something to his friend Kent (Steven Pasquale) about Steph's looks, within earshot of her friend (and Greg and Kent's co-worker, and Greg's girlfriend) Carly (Piper Perabo). What he said wasn't awful, and could be defended, but it wasn't a great comment, either.

But what he said isn't as important as what Steph hears -- and feels. Over the course of the next two hours (including intermission), these two couples go through a fair bit of emotional hell -- which LaBute sometimes manages to make funny, even when the cruelty reaches its height. (The best scene in the play is when Steph reads aloud her notes about all Greg's physical shortcomings -- not just to Greg, but to everyone else at the mall food court, as well.)

LaBute has written a great play, I think. He gets to some very deep places with some pretty elegant, efficient writing. And though the cast does a mostly first-class job, I regularly felt there was emotional depth that was present in the text that the actors (or director Terry Kinney) failed to plumb. There were times, especially in the first act, where there just didn't seem to be enough veracity in the interaction between Steph and Greg.

But given the rawness of emotion that would be exposed if the actors went as deep as LaBute's text, I'm not sure audiences are ready for that. At least not enough to keep a Broadway play going long enough to recoup anything close to its investment.

No comments: