Sunday, May 15, 2011

Theater review: Deep in the words with CoHo's 'reasons to be pretty'

Nikki Weaver and Casey McFeron/Photo: Gretchen Corbett
By Barry Johnson

Neil LaBute's reasons to be pretty starts with one of those ominous arguments that couples sometimes have, an angry chainsaw of f-bombs and accusations that you just know is going to leave a stump where a relationship once stood.

In the CoHo production, which opened Friday,  Nikki Weaver as Stephanie is doing most of the sawing, most of it offstage, ripping into her boyfriend Greg, played by Casey McFeron, who has said something, um, indiscreet, though we never know exactly what. We do know that it has to do with Stephanie's looks, at least that's what her best friend Carli says she overheard, and from what we're able to piece together from the fight, we suspect that Greg may well be guilty as charged.

Yes, Greg has said something about Stephanie and her looks. Maybe that she's not as pretty as a new woman at work. Or maybe that she's plain looking in comparison. Surely, he didn't say she was ugly, did he? I don't think so. He was talking to Carli's husband and his best friend Kent about that fetching new employee at the warehouse where Carli, Kent and Greg work, a young woman Kent has begun to obsess about, and maybe something untoward slipped out of Greg's mouth in the general enthusiasm for her delicate features. Well, something did slip out or Carli wouldn't have called Stephanie to tell her about it.

Two things occurred to me. The first was to consider what we can say about another person, someone close to us, that is truly unforgivable, words that defy abject apologies, flowers and promises of better behavior in the future. The second was to wonder how responsible we really are for the words that escape our lips,  because we all say things we don't really mean. Our brains just spit out stuff sometimes, and surely we deserve a pass on some of it. Right?

Except this isn't a court of law or a formal debate, and Stephanie will never forget what Greg said, no matter how deeply he loves her, though actually, that's a question, the real question of the play: How deeply can someone as feckless and unformed and directionless as Greg really love someone?

Not that Greg is a bad guy. McFeron (and director Gretchen Corbett and playwright LaBute) makes him likable enough -- funny, self-deprecating, accommodating, even well read. You know a playwright likes a character when he has him reading Poe, Hawthorne, Swift and Washington Irving all play long. And Kent is so much worse. As the play evolves we start to understand that he isn't just a silly harmless "guy" and so does Greg, who has plenty of time to think now that his relationship with Stephanie has been clearcut.

Pretty soon we arrive at the play's next little dilemma. In addition to saying things that we don't mean (which most of us, I think, would consider unfortunate though understandable), we also lie. Would we lie to protect a friend even though the friend is doing something we think is wrong? Would we lie to the person who ratted us out to our girlfriend? In short, at what point are we responsible for the truth of what we say? And on this question,  Greg begins to "dig in" -- a phrase of my grandfather's, advice that simply meant to stop the drifting, advice that we've all heard from various quarters at various times.

A few words about the production, which I found balanced and probing, under Corbett's direction.

I really liked McFeron's silences, his deliberation, the way he wavered and then became resolved. His scenes with Weaver start out so angry and then move to sadness and acceptance, not to sound too Kubler-Ross about it. Weaver is headed in the same direction, and we feel a certain twinge as we watch this passage they make, together yet apart. At first, I thought Weaver was entirely too "pretty" to play Stephanie, but then this whole matter of prettiness dissolved in the deeper currents of the play as prettiness so often does, and Weaver understands those deeper currents, contradictory and melancholy though they may be.

The scenes between Tallent's Carli and McFeron's Greg track their development even more clearly than those between Stephanie and Greg. Carli's course is even bumpier than Stephanie and Greg's, when it comes down to it, and like them she becomes more likable as the play goes on. The same can't be said of Kent, whose case of arrested development seems terminal. San Nicolas's sketch of him plays up his boyish enthusiasms, his dude-ness, as long as possible, and then suffers as the self-centeredness of that approach describes a target for his comeuppance(s).

At that first brutal argument, I recoiled a bit, thinking I was in store for another grim LaBute foray into human ugliness, like In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors and The Shape of Things. LaBute has undermined the cliches of relationships (as trees for example!) by making them awful and violent. But reasons to be pretty is a suggestion that lives, however badly begun, can be righted, forests can be spared. Does this take us into back into the land of the cliche? Maybe it depends on the acting...


Ben Brantley's 2008 review of the play in the New York Times is glowing, and so is the 2010 Peter Marks review in the Washington Post.

This play is the final installment of LaBute's "body" trilogy (The Shape of Things, Fat Pig), though the issue of physical beauty didn't register with me so strongly as other matters. A New York Times preview article goes into the issue a bit more.

Marty Hughley previewed this production for The Oregonian. Here's director Corbett on Nikki Weaver and the physical beauty issue: "How Nikki looks is irrelevant to me," she says. "I don't think it's about objective reality. It's about what kind of people we are. Don't we find our partners beautiful? And if we don't, what the hell is wrong with us?" Good question!


cohoscott said...

Now I want to see our show even more! Thank you for a great, helpful review.

Barry Johnson said...

Scott, you are very welcome. I hope lots of people see it!

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