Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Review: 'reasons to be pretty'

Epithets fly swiftly in Philadelphia Theatre Company's dynamic production of Neil LaBute's "reasons to be pretty." Inquirer theater critic Howard Shapiro reviews.

Review: 'reasons to be pretty'

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Daniel Abeles and Genevieve Perrier in Philadelphia Theatre Company's "reasons to be pretty." Photo by Mark Garvin.


By Howard Shapiro

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, hshapiro@phillynews.com, 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.

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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