Saturday, April 16, 2011

REVIEW: “reasons to be pretty” @ ALLIANCE REP


In elementary school, we have all been taught that words mean "something" and can be powerful weapons. Therefore, in a society that prizes beauty, having your boyfriend describe your face to a male friend as "just regular" would tick off most women, just as it does Stephanie in Neil LaBute's insightful dramatic comedy, reasons to be pretty, now receiving an intelligent and insightfully funny production by Alliance Repertory Theater out at the Edison Valley Playhouse through April 30.

Obviously, this lesson must have been taught the day Greg was absent from school, for when he utters this damning praise to his best friend Kent over a bottle of beer, it's overheard by Kent's wife Carly, who promptly tells Stephanie, and the couple's life is turned inside out and upside down. A screaming fight ensues, Stephanie leaves the apartment (and ultimately terminates their four-year relationship), Greg finds himself in a sticky situation having to lie to Carly about Kent's infidelity and the guys' long-time friendship comes to a—literally—violent end.

Michael Driscoll's estimable direction (ably assisted by Emma Schwartz) keeps reasons to be pretty's whirlwind action on track as the actors hurl their bodies and their dialogue through the plot's minefields. And he has assembled a cast perfectly able to explode the verbal bombs that fly through the air repeatedly and at top speed.

IMG_0586The opening scene, in which Stephanie (Rachel Brown, at left in photo to right) tries to get Greg (Brad Howell, at right in photo) to admit he called her face "just like regular," spews a compendium of every four-letter word ever written. Brown's obscenity-laced dialogue ricochets off the furniture and walls of the couple's apartment, so much so that Greg likens it to "an Eddie Murphy concert." Howell cowers under the attack and looks guilty, but when he tries to apologize multiple times, he gains our sympathy in the face of her intransigence. Later, Brown has a fine time reading a long and vivid list of Greg's shortcomings to a crowd in a mall food court. It's funny to hear but heartbreaking to watch Greg wilt under the barrage.

IMG_0606The plot thickens when Kent (Michael Bernardi) admits that he's cheating on his wife with Crystal, the beautiful new girl in shipping who occasioned the conversation about Steph's face in the first place. When he pledges his best friend Greg to secrecy, the latter finds himself in a pickle when Carly (Jessica Candelmo Lomazzo, at left in photo above) voices her suspicions. Howell's body language and facial expressions aptly convey his dilemma. Normally, he wouldn't have much sympathy for Carly because she ratted him out to Steph, but the man's humanity shines through as he tries not to hurt another human being. He's a real mensch.

IMG_0649The same can't be said for Bernardi's Kent (at left in photo to right). An overgrown ten-year-old, he's a brash and obnoxious know-it-all, not above sharing some of the more salacious details about his and Crystal's sexual antics. And Lomazzo's Carly is a bit of an intellectual dolt at the outset and a bit too willing to convey Greg's words to her best friend, even if they are hurtful, but Lomazzo engenders our sympathy from the young wife (pregnant with the couple's first child) when she voices her mistrust of her husband at this vulnerable time—and when we know what's really going on.

The four actors are credible in their roles and very convincing in their delivery of LaBute's searing dialogue. I never felt as though I were watching actors speaking dialogue written for them, that's how natural they are!

Kevin Gunther has provided a set that encompasses various locations: the couple's apartment, the break room at the warehouse where Greg, Kent and Carly work, a food court, a hotel lobby where Greg runs into Stephanie outside a swanky restaurant where she's on a first date and the baseball field where Greg and Kent engage in a violent showdown. Lilli Marques' costumes suit the characters while Kelly Maizenaski and Michael Driscoll's sound—primarily songs played during scene changes—is very apt (listen to the lyrics; they fit the action onstage).

Given Neil LaBute's propensity for tackling uncomfortable situations, especially regarding female appearance and male response to/judgment of it (as he did Fat Pig), reasons to be pretty is not a "pretty" play. The man-boys in this play—Greg more than Kent—learn that words do have repercussions, often worse than initially thought. The sight of Greg at the end of the play is enough to convince us to think before we open our mouths lest we find ourselves losing all that we hold dear.

reasons to be pretty will be performed at the Edison Valley Playhouse, 2196 Oak Tree Road, Edison, through April 30. Performances are Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 PM, Sunday, April 17, at 2 PM, and Thursday, April 28, at 8 PM. For information and tickets, call the box office at 908.755.4654.

Photos by Howard Fischer.