Saturday, July 9, 2011

theater review: Reasons to Be Pretty by Neil LaBute

The backstory: Des Moines has an incredibly vibrant theater scene, and a large part of it is StageWest, who bills itself as "eclectic, urban theater on the edge."

This summer, StageWest is putting on Neil LaBute's three beauty plays: The Shape of Things, Fat Pig, and Reasons to Be Pretty. The plays aren't a trilogy, and I like to think of them as a trio because they're unified in theme, but not in character or setting. I saw The Shape of Things in its first run in New York in 2001 (more on that one next week), so I was eager to see all three plays. StageWest is only the second place in the country to perform all three, which is pretty fantastic.

The basics: Carly overhears her husband Kent and his friend Greg talking about a hot new woman they work with. When Greg mentions his girlfriend, Steph, is merely ordinary looking, Carly immediately calls Steph. The ultimate question: do our loved ones see us as we are or as our best selves? Is your partner ordinary or does love make his ordinary face the most beautiful face in the world to you?

My thoughts: The nature of beauty is explored beautifully in this play, and LaBute's script infuses nuance and humor into a situation that is both sad and understandable. Much of this production's success must go to the superb acting. With only four actors in a small theater, it would be easy to spot a weak link.

Photo by Casey L. Gradisching
It was fascinating to see the characters interact with the audience, a hallmark of LaBute's plays. When one character feigns embarrassment from the crowd at the mall witnessing their fight, the other dismisses it because they don't even know these people. In a different fight scene, the character who remains on stage admonishes the audience by asking them what they're looking at. This cognizance of the voyeurism of theater plays into our societal standards of beauty.

LaBute is a gifted playwright. The four characters in this play each had a lot of dialogue, and a remarkable number of ideas and emotions were explored. I expected cultural critical commentary, but I was pleasantly surprised how funny this play was. I repeatedly laughed out loud. In many ways, it's a similar humor to 30 Rock. There were laughs of surprise, shock and sometimes embarrassment. There were silent laughs and laughs too loud for public. Through all the laughs, the dialogue pacing worked.

The verdict: The script and performances were entertaining and intriguing. The issues of beauty and love raised in the play will stay with me and keep me pondering.

Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Length: about 105 minutes with no intermission
Source: I paid to see it

Treat yourself! You may not be able to see the play (it's run ends today), but you can read it: order Reasons to Be Pretty from Amazon (Kindle version) or an independent bookstore.

Next week: my reviews of The Shape of Things and Fat Pig, the other two of Neil LaBute's beauty plays.

As an affiliate, I receive a very, very small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!


  1. I haven't seen many plays this season, but we try to go whenever we can. There is a great theater close by that has some wonderful plays every year, and a few smaller theaters as well. We also are lucky to have the Fringe Festival every year, which hosts local and foreign actors in plays that are socially off the cuff. I would have liked to see this one. It sounds like it was quite good.

  2. I saw this one last summer and reviewed it on my theatre blog here...

    I've seen Fat Pig as well, but haven't seen The Shape of Things on the stage (I've seen the movie). His plays are so thought provoking!


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