BY JEFF LEVENE
Neil LaBute has never been a stranger to tackling the most fragile of societal issues with the delicacy of Gallagher at a summer farmer’s market, and in Furman Theatre’s latest adaptation of his work “Reasons to be Pretty,” it leaves one wondering if the struggles of sexism and beauty should be handled with such a rash hand.
The play (the first installment of his trilogy that includes “Reasons to Be Happy” and “Reasons to Be Pretty Happy”) begins as couple one, Greg and Steph, enter into an explosive and expletive-filled argument over an off-hand comment Greg has made about Steph’s mediocre facial features. As they break up, we are introduced to their two best friends Kent and Carly (also a couple) who seem to always say the right things, but hide issues behind chiseled physiques and Greta Garbo symmetry. As Greg tries to piece together his failing relationship, he stumbles into a number of societal traps surrounding beauty, and how his “accidental” misunderstanding may just hold the key to overcoming the pitfalls of appearance.
The issue is that LaBute’s exploration of a largely sexist problem is helmed by a lazy schmuck instead of the two female heroines who really likely should have been the leads. Several monologues and missed opportunities leave the play looking like an outsider look into the everyday struggles of womanhood and appearance. Many moments, from questionable monologue material to again a dearth of stage time for the women at the center of the debate, leave you realizing, as the woman who accompanied me to the performance eloquently stated, “this show was clearly written by a dude.”
A lot of the script’s pitfalls aren’t helped with Jay Oney’s decision to play up the comedic factors in the script while also pushing for a more one-note approach to characters like Steph and Kent, as well as the over-simplification of Greg as a lovable shmuck, instead of a clearly problematic protagonist (which is a trait I’ve come to love from LaBute).
That being said, the cast does a terrific job picking up some of the slack offering a number of belly laughs and some great comedic timing.
Derek Leonard’s Greg brings terrific physical comedy to a loser who’s starting to turn a new leaf. Moments like an peculiar set of pre-game stretches, or an awkward attempt to escape a jumpsuit provide a physical representatin of the character’s inner issues and pathetic attempts to navigate the relationships around him.
Likewise, Mike Caterisano as Kent becomes the ultimate misogynistic, racist jock stereotype while still managing to fool us initially into finding him likable.
Eliza Kate Leiter hits the ground running with a flurry of furious curses and frustrations, and while she never really dials it back down, it makes for a Steph who’s sick of her relationship and ready to escape floundering in mediocrity with her loser boyfriend.
And while Courtney Dorn has the least stage time as Carly, she quickly shows the most range of emotions, jumping from the excitement of pregnancy, to the fury of a defensive best friend, to the despair of a woman scorned.
While the show has its shortcomings in its feminist agenda and some missed opportunities to take this script to a deeper darker place, Furman University’s “Reasons to be Pretty” still offers an incredibly entertaining and hilariously vulgar romp through some of the misperceptions of beauty. If only it could’ve provided a few more of those reasons on why we look to beauty as a marker of importance.
“Reasons to be Pretty” continues Saturday, Sept. 30 at 3 & 8 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 1 at 3 p.m. at The Playhouse at Furman University, 3300 Poinsett Hwy. in Greenville. Call the Theatre Box Office at (864) 294-2125 or follow this link.