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LOU'S VIEWS: LaBute's new play 'Pretty' impressive

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Lou Harry

Reasons to Be Pretty”—which signaled Neil LaBute’s Broadway playwriting debut in 2009 and is getting its first Midwest production here courtesy of the Phoenix Theatre (where it’s running through Aug. 1)—works not because it inevitably leads to discussions of appearance, perception, beauty, expectations and honesty.
 

Actors in Reasons to be Pretty Angela Plank lays into Ryan Artzberger in Neil LaBute’s “Reasons to be Pretty.” (Photo Courtesy The Phoenix Theatre)

It works as well as it does because those are the issues being dealt with by two interesting, flawed and specific characters.

The catalyst for the drama: Before curtain, histrionic salon worker Stephanie found out that live-in boyfriend, underachieving warehouse worker Greg, described her to a friend as being “regular” (in contrast with the beauty of a new co-worker).

So what do you do when you find out that the man who loves you thinks you are “regular”?

Well, if you are Stephanie, you launch into an expletive-filled verbal attack. Without an exit strategy.

When Stephanie blasts her pain and confusion and self-doubt at her bewildered about-to-be-ex partner, she isn’t looking for an apology. She isn’t looking for an explanation. She isn’t really looking for a confession. She’s not sure what she’s looking for, but she knows that the words and their (in her view) implications hurt deeply.

And because there isn’t an answer, whatever Greg offers isn’t the right response.

That Stephanie and Greg prove such sympathetic characters is testament to LaBute’s growth as a playwright. Neither of his leads has the black spot in the center of his or her soul that

seems to be the hallmark of much of his past work. In fact, three of the four have hearts that resonate. And director Bryan Fonseca and his designers have created a production that seems to live inside such a damaged heart.

Casting such a piece is, of course, challenging.

When I heard Angela Plank was taking the part of Stephanie, I wondered if this very pretty actress was right for the part. After all, just three years ago, Plank played the shallow, traditionally beautiful character in LaBute’s “Fat Pig” at the same theater. In the New York version of the show, actress Marin Ireland seemed more volatile in an effort to cover the “flaws” in her looks. Here, Stephanie’s issues seem more internal than external, giving the play a different—but no less interesting—dynamic.

I hate to keep mentioning the Broadway production, but I will again because it helps accentuate some of the nuanced work done here by Ryan Artzberger as Greg. In New York, I didn’t quite buy Greg’s classic-novel-in-the-back-pocket reading habits. Nor did his eventual choices ring completely true.

Here, I never doubted Greg’s love for Stephanie or his disillusionment with the life he had made for himself. And I found the ending (not the very last moment, which is unnecessary, but the rest of the final scene) far more satisfying. And that’s in large part due to Artzberger’s achingly real portrait of a guy who has stumbled into a life surrounded by people who don’t make him a better person. It is possible, LaBute and Artzberger make clear, to love someone and, at the same time, know that a relationship is fundamentally and debilitatingly wrong.

LaBute is less effective in creating the secondary leads. It’s no fault of actor Shane Chuvalas that co-worker Kent is a by-the-book macho jerk. Mariana Fernandez has more to play in Kent’s wronged wife Carly—and she finds some flirtatious nuances that work well—but her character as written is equally familiar.

__________

Over two July weekends, I had the pleasure of hosting panel discussions at two Indianapolis fan conventions. One, InConjunction, brought together fans of science fiction, fantasy and gaming. The other, Famous Monsters Convention, lured devotees of horror, both old school and more contemporary.

While one was more likely to attract Mountain Dew swillers and the other proved a magnet for the heavily tattooed, both joyously celebrated the outsider in all of us. At InConjunction, guests learned the latest card games from Looney Labs, bid on “Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars” auction items, and sat in on Dr. Who and apocalyptic movies. At the other convention, guests celebrated Famous Monsters of Filmland (the recently relaunched magazine that influenced the likes of directors Steven Spielberg and Joe Dante) and purchased autographed photos from cast members of George Romero’s Living Dead movies.

My inner 12-year-old (who read Famous Monsters and sat through “Star Wars” twice on its opening day) was very, very happy at both. And I’m looking forward to attending both in 2011.•

__________

This column appears weekly. Send information on upcoming A&E events to lharry@ibj.com. Visit www.ibj.com/arts for more reviews, previews and blog posts. Twitter: IBJarts

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