Toronto’s Unit 102 Theatre’s Reasons to be Pretty‘s social commentary on female beauty falls short of hitting the mark
I was intrigued by this description: “LaBute’s play questions how we value female beauty in modern society.” It’s a hot topic and worthy subject matter. This is not really what Reasons to be Pretty is about though. In fact, having seen The LaBute Cycle’s production at the Unit 102 Theatre, I find the title of this play to be rather misleading.
The core conflict is sparked by a remark about physical attractiveness (and there’s some preaching at the end), but Neil Labute‘s play doesn’t really explore the phenomenon of beauty. The narrative suggests an eternal conflict between the sexes, without much hope for mutual understanding.
We have two working-class couples: Steph (Julia Nish-Lapidus) and Greg (Steve Boleantu), Carly (Elisabeth Lagerlöf) and Kent (James Wallis). After Steph hears from Carly that she overheard Greg tell Kent that her face is “just okay”, she flips out and the drama begins. And there is a lot of drama. The problem is this: it is drama for its own sake.
Steph’s feelings are hurt because Greg let some faint praise slip. When he tries to explain himself, she’ll have none of it. She throws a tantrum and leaves him. Meanwhile, Kent and Carly’s relationship is on the rocks because he’s having an affair.
As my companion for the night pointed out, there is a Reality-TV feel to the dialogue and action. It’s all very naturalistic, with lots of mean-spirited squabbling.
Three of the four characters are intensely unlikable. Kent is a macho, misogynistic, racist bully. Steph is an insecure nutcase. Carly is an uppity instigator who delights in stirring up drama.
In most scenes, we just feel badly for poor Greg, a stand-up guy with a self-deprecating sense of humour, who just wants to coast through life as a decent dude. He’s the sanest of the lot and we’re meant to identify with him. But I found it a little cheap: pitting an everyman against a bunch of contemptible jerks.
The play gives us scenes where people yell and berate each other without really communicating, interspersed with monologues where each of the four characters reveal their deep feelings. I didn’t glean much insight from these monologues, but they do soften the impact of their personalities and prevent them from being completely repellent.
If these people told each other the things they tell the audience, they might have somewhat healthier relationships. Maybe that’s LaBute’s point; if that be the case, it’s muddled.
All four actors are strong, but the script doesn’t give them much opportunity for nuance or depth. LaBute’s writing is one-note and riddled with sloppy dramatics. Often characters want to leave, try to leave, but just don’t. They remain in extremely unpleasant situations for no good reason. Arguments consist of one character trying to be reasonable and the other acting like a brat.
The most manipulative scene—and the most violent—is intended to show us the extent of Kent’s depravity. The scene is uncomfortable because he’s saying and doing terrible things to Greg—who, by the way, is just trying to be honourable. For all its showiness, the scene isn’t particularly dramatic because we don’t give a shit about Kent. LaBute has set it up so that we’re just waiting for him to get his ass kicked.
James Wallis’ staging is straight-forward and functional. There are no big set pieces, just a table, some chairs, and key props. The back wall of the stage is a white screen framed by magazine cutouts of female fashion models; it’s a somewhat heavy-handed bit of set-dressing.
There may have been some technical issues early on; the second act monologues were accompanied by live-action video projections that did not occur during the first act. I preferred the monologues without these projections. They are meant to further the concept of the characters’ obsession with physical appearance, but they are just distracting.
I don’t fault the performances for my lack of enthusiasm. The actors were my favourite part of the show. I just do not connect with LaBute’s script. The rapid-fire, brutal and raunchy dialogue will appeal to many, I’m sure, especially those with a penchant for public displays of bad behaviour.
- Reasons to be Pretty plays at the Unit 102 Theatre (376 Dufferin) until April 13
- Shows run Tuesday through Sunday at 8PM
- Tickets are $17 and can be purchased online and picked up at Unit 102 the night of the performance.
Image design by Kyle Purcell