Reasons to Be Pretty is thick with expletives that still hold meaning

As Reasons to Be Pretty opens, Steph is railing at her lover, Greg. The girl's a spitfire, with a habit of tossing Greg's goldfish into the john when she's angry, but at this moment she's beyond all reason, incandescent with rage, a shrieking, spitting harridan who won't allow the poor guy a single completed sentence — or even a moment in which he might be able to formulate one. The cause of all the turmoil is a comment overheard at a barbecue by Steph's best friend, Carly: Discussing an attractive co-worker with Carly's husband, Kent, Greg said something about Steph's face being regular rather than beautiful.

Playwright Neil LaBute has explored issues of physical attractiveness in two plays besides this one: Fat Pig and The Shape of Things. But Reasons to Be Pretty has more interesting and less obvious things to say than this well-worn theme implies; in fact, I don't really think it's much about looks at all. Steph seems straight-up nuts in the opening scene and even more so later, when she reads a list of Greg's disgusting physical habits and imperfections aloud not only to him, but to everyone within hearing range at the mall. But eventually we realize there's a deeper cause for her rage and pain than simple insecurity about her face.

In a sequence of brief and generally very funny scenes, we learn more about Greg, Steph, Carly and Kent. They're all working-class stiffs, with Steph employed at a hair salon, and Greg, Kent and Carly at a factory where a blaring horn controls their every move. The guys feel a sense of freedom only when playing baseball, and Kent, who's a typical LaBute male, shallow and leering, alleviates his boredom by flirting with women other than Carly. But deeper impulses and understandings are stirring within Greg, who brings a book to work with him every day — though he may struggle to find a name for them. For him, maturing and becoming fully human requires that he hear what underlies Steph's rage; and she, just as desperately, needs to be heard by him.

In David Mamet's work, the word "fuck" is used so often it becomes like a musical phrase, part of the rhythm of the dialogue. Reasons to Be Pretty is equally thick with expletives, but almost every iteration carries a specific connotation, helping to delineate character or further an idea. People say "fuck" to express rage, confusion, frustration; when they're caught on the back foot; when they're defending themselves against unwanted feelings; when they want to describe something for which they can't quite find words. Kent's comments on beautiful Crystal represent a perfect example of the inarticulacy that plagues this quartet: "She is a knockout, she really is.... Her face is, like...ummmmmmgh! Fuck...these teeth that're...and her lips...and her eyes are a color, I don't even think it's one you'd find in a box of crayons — maybe one of those bigger cartons..."

Paragon Theatre ensemble member Brandon Kruhm makes an authentic, empathetic Greg, and director Holly Ann Peterson has enlisted three interesting newcomers for the other roles. Lauren Bahlman's Carly is believably working-class, pleasantly calm and centered; Desiree Gagnon's Steph moves convincingly from an improbably awful caricature to a vulnerable young woman. And David Cates provides Kent with the kind of raw male charm and energy that certain boorish guys know so well how to flaunt.

As you'd expect with LaBute, the war between the sexes is prominent, and there's plenty of nastiness in the air. The men's friendship is in large part based on reflexive woman-bashing; Carly and Steph egg each other on in petty, spiteful ways; Greg occasionally takes a swipe when Steph is most vulnerable. And, of course, there's a major betrayal at the heart of the action. But the dialogue crackles with wit and intelligence, and the play also serves as a rather touching coming-of-age story, affirming that even twisted forms of love matter, and that some of the unlikeliest people can eventually grow up.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman