By Howard Shapiro
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
A note to guys about guy talk: Be careful what you say about your significant other in casual conversations with the pals. It may come back to change your life.
That’s not my caveat — it’s the playwright Neil LaBute’s, who wrote reasons to be pretty, the non-capitalized (and who knows why?) play about a guy who makes an off-hand, not even harshly stated, comment that his girlfriend has unremarkable looks. Her gal pal overhears this and immediately files a report. After that, the play opens, in an already-on-fire screaming match between the guy and his girlfriend, built equally of arguable points and cursing epithets. (The play is what you might call fully four-letter friendly.)
The Broadway production three seasons back of reasons to be pretty spoke to me, and so does a dynamic staging that opened Wednesday night at Philadelphia Theatre Company. Because it takes on an issue not much talked about but wholly relevant – how we perceive being attractive and what that means for us — reasons to be pretty is an indelicate little gem; it speaks in a raw but real way about the way we think and how that translates into what we say, and how we may not know we’re slighting someone when we are.
LaBute’s play is one of three he’s written about such perceptions, and it becomes diffuse — possibly too much so — in its subject matter; reasons to be pretty’s first half sticks to the notions of being pretty (or not) and respect for someone you love. The second half becomes more of a study of its four characters, and the play branches out to examine workplace relations, friendship, trust and lying. But look at all this as a portrait of the evolution of one largely innocent but careless comment, and you’ve found the cortex of the play.
Certainly, the director of this production, Maria Mileaf, found it — this reasons to be pretty is seamless from its first ranting moment to its sensible resolution. It has a great Greg, the poor guy who drops the bomb, in Daniel Abeles, an actor so naturally reeking of vulnerability, you can watch him devolve into a puddle of it — which you’ll want to do in a beautifully played scene when his character is verbally splayed at a food court by the girlfriend, who’s moved out of their apartment.
She’s played by Genevieve Perrier, the busy local actress who — can I write this in a piece about this particular show? — is way prettier than she’s purposely made out to be here. Her look matches the shrillness she plumbs from her character. Their friends are effectingly played by Paul Felder (who gives the character a sense of constant anger I didn’t before notice and may not fully buy) and Elizabeth Stanley, as the manipulative tattle-teller.
The wholesale verbal sparring turns in different instances to a slap, a scuffle and a fight — and the weak slap and scuffle must be more vibrant to be believed. Not the words, though, which make you wonder whether sentiments you’ve cooly dropped have landed with a slice you did not forsee.
Contact Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, firstname.lastname@example.org, or #philastage on Twitter.
reasons to be pretty: Through June 24 at Philadelphia Theatre Company’s Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Broad and Lombard Streets. Tickets: $46-$59. Information: 215-985-0420 or www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.