There are many reasons to be pretty, since pretty people do seem to get more of life's goodies -- money, attention, employment, love, sex, respect, you name it. On the other hand, handsome is as handsome does, and we all know that beauty is really in the eye of the beholder . . . .
OK, these are platitudes, but platitudes have a nugget of truth. They can also be inane: where else would beauty be but in the eye of the beholder? It can't exist at all unless someone sees or senses it, right? Even so, the closer you get to it the less important it seems, until it pretty much disappears, unless it has turned into (or joined hands with) beauty that is more than merely physical . . . .
I could go on in this strain, but the point I'm fumbling with is that just about everyone values beauty, whether their own or someone else's, but the nature and perception and even existence of beauty is constantly shifting.
Some idea like (or related to) this is lying right there on the surface of Neil LaBute's "reasons to be pretty: a love story about the impossibility of love," which this weekend concludes its run at No Name Players.
It's really about love and loyalty, but the triggering event of its cascading scenes of argument and rationalization is when Kent's wife Carly tells Steph that her partner Greg, in a drunken chat with Kent, called her ordinary looking. That is, just plain ugly, which is how it feels to Steph. So the play begins with a fabulous scene of Steph and Greg going at it, lickety-split, she berating him and he trying to wriggle out of it, all the while the end of their relationship looming closer and closer.
This is the ur-event, and the play then traces the relationships of the four over the next several months. Naturally the audience takes sides. Here's my take: Kent (the pretty Jody O'Donnell) is a male chauvinist jerk. Steph (the pretty Karen Baum) lives on the edge of hysteria, and I immediately thought Greg (the pretty Don DiGiulio) was well rid of her. I (we?) also think well of Carly (the pretty Clara Childress), who has perhaps the hardest fate, being married to the jerk.
But they're all jerks, which is to say young, so I guess they aren't entirely to blame. Chalk it all up to life and to however we came to be as we are.
Greg is the hero among equals. He's too much of a pushover, but in this company, that makes him a saint, and we all feel cathartic pleasure when he finally uses his fists to good effect.
Ultimately, "reasons to be pretty" isn't much of a play but a series of good scenes that would be great fodder for acting classes. There just isn't enough substance in the characters to make us care about them. That we do (sort of) care about Greg is mostly a measure of the indulgence the playwright shows him. He's a college dropout who reads all the time, Swift, Twain, Hawthorne (I think), in what look like the old Modern Library editions, so you know he's going to get his act together and turn out all right.
That also has something to do with his portrayal by Mr. DiGiulio, who's rumpled and appealing, a sort of unassertive hero for the times. Mr. O'Donnell has the flashier role as the strutting, repugnant Kent. Ms. Baum's Steph seems hopelessly blind to her own craziness, so her reformation is a bit hard to take. Ms. Childress has the thinnest role, but the look on her face as she finally realizes what's happening is heart-breaking.
Marci Woodruff, a master of careful development of stage relationships, directs, so you know the thinness of characters and story are in the play, not the direction. The play did, however, go to Broadway briefly in 2008, so there may be more to it than I can see. As I say, it certainly gives actors a workout.
I've been intrigued by the several LaBute plays I've seen. He has a hard, unsentimental edge and a mastery of flat contemporary dialogue, reminiscent of what David Mamet felt like when he was new back in the late '70s.
Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson is at firstname.lastname@example.org.