At SF Playhouse, pretty is as Pretty does
Craig Marker is Greg and Lauren English is Stephanie in Neil LaBute’s Reasons to Be Pretty at San Francisco Playhouse. Below: Patrick Russell as Kent works his testosterone in front of Marker’s Greg. Photos by Jessica Palopoli
I’ve come to learn that when a Neil LaBute play or movie crosses my path, I detour around it, ignore it or make an immediate donation to a women’s support or LBGT organization. LaBute is a really good writer – his ear for dialogue is impeccable, and his ferocity for storytelling is admirable. I just rarely like what his characters have to say or where his stories end up.
That said, LaBute’s Reasons to Be Pretty, now at San Francisco Playhouse, marks the first time I’ve left one of the writer’s play and not wanted to bash my head against the wall on the way out. Sure, there are traces of misogyny, homophobia and racism (mostly coming from the mouth of one classic LaButian male character). But what’s interesting here is that LaBute is being provocative in the name of evolution, of self-actualization, of emotional growth.
There’s not really a two-act play here – more like a 90-minute one act at best – and that becomes apparent after the explosive set-up that opens the show. A couple is in mid-fight. Greg (Craig Marker) has said something thoughtless about Stephanie (Lauren English), his girlfriend of four years. The comment was overheard by Steph’s friend and was immediately reported. Amid a storm of cursing and flailing through their bedroom, Steph forces Greg to admit what he said. “Don’t try and Lance Armstrong your way out of this,” she bellows. And just what was so awful? He described Steph’s looks as “regular.” That unflattering word unnerves Stephanie to her core. It pushes what appears to be her biggest insecurity button, and she flies off the handle. Way off the handle.
The relationship is over primarily because Stephanie doesn’t want to be with someone who doesn’t think she’s beautiful, and Greg, in his bumbling apologies, never quite says the right thing (or even that he loves her). The worst part, Steph says, is that because Greg didn’t know his comment was being overheard, he was saying what was really in his heart.
The thrust of LaBute’s play is four scenes between Greg and Stephanie: their fight, a follow-up revenge-tinged meeting at a mall food court, a chance encounter at a nice restaurant and a none-too-plausible meeting in the wee hours of the morning at Greg’s workplace.
Marker and English, under the warm, clear-eyed direction of Susi Damilano, are so good they really make this material sing. First off, though, it’s a stretch of the imagination to perceive the stunning English as “regular” (provided “regular” doesn’t mean vibrant and luminous and more emotionally accessible than most of us). But she’s so good at conveying Stephanie’s insecurity, her discomfort in her own body that we buy it. We also see Stephanie mature a little bit with each scene. As unlikely as the last scene is, watching English’s Stephanie step more comfortably in her skin and take more responsibility for her emotional life is the kind of surprising triumph that makes this play more than an exercise in “men are from Mars/women are from Venus” clichés.
Marker carries the weight of the play as Greg, a seemingly educated guy always carrying a book (Poe, Hawthorne, Swift, Irving) who’s stuck in a warehouse job. He’s sleepwalking through life and spending too much time with his college buddy/co-worker Kent (a believably crass Patrick Russell), who is a Grade A asshole. Kent’s undue influence and Greg’s narcotized existence accounts for the “regular” comment, but it’s Stephanie’s extreme reaction that gives Greg’s life the jolt it needs. Her leaving him breaks his habits, and as much as he tries to resume his “regular” life, he can’t do it. He even gets embroiled in Kent’s troubled marriage to Carly (Jennifer Stuckert) and discovers that he actually has morals, has it in him to stand up to bullies and make change in his stalled life.
Even at two acts, LaBute’s play only glances on the deeper psychological workings that make this play less incendiary than some of his previous work, but the excellent actors do a lot to create the necessary depth. And the dynamic set by Bill English, with its dramatic revolutions and realistic details make Reasons prettier than it might otherwise have been.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Neil LaBute’s Reasons to Be Pretty continues through May 11 at San Francisco Playhouse. Tickets are $30-$70. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.