The opening scene of Neil LaBute’s “Reasons to be Pretty,” currently playing at Old Town Actors Studio, features dozens of uses of the f-word, some of them pretty creative! If that doesn’t sound to your taste, this is probably not the play for you. On the other hand, if you just cracked a grin, read on.
“Reasons to Be Pretty” starts with a bang, in the middle of a relationship-ending fight between Steph (played by Tracy Mull) and Greg (played by Tanner Morton). It seems that in a conversation with work friend Kent (Harrison Hicks), Greg “contrasts” the face of an attractive new co-worker with Steph’s “regular” face. Carly (Lillian Johnson), Steph’s best friend and Kent’s wife, overhears this conversation and spills the beans to Steph, thus inciting the action of the play.
Director Camile Thomsen seems to have made it her mission to bring bold new material to the Pocatello stage whenever she embarks on a project, and “Reasons” certainly qualifies. The play asks questions about the subjectivity of beauty and how that relates to both men and women. Although gender politics have evolved significantly in the years since LaBute’s play debuted in 2008, the play’s insights about the lingering nature of relationships that supposedly “end” are still resonant. The dialogue, which evokes the messiness of real-life conversation (well, real-life arguments), is also a highlight here.
Speaking of that dialogue, it is a challenge to wrestle with the overlapping, rapid-fire lines, and Thomsen has assembled a capable cast to rise to that challenge. Lillian Johnson brings toughness and vulnerability to the role of Carly. Harrison Hicks invests the despicable Kent with enough charm that we can see why people fall for him. Tracy Mull and Tanner Morton turn in standout performances as Steph and Greg. The well-matched pair have expressive faces perfectly suited for the material, and they both make LaBute’s dialogue feel effortlessly natural. Morton’s vocal inflection, in particular, successfully captures Greg’s rapidly shifting mental state. Mull’s nuanced take on Steph comes through in her microexpressions, and she steals the show with her irresistible comic delivery.
Thomsen keeps the staging simple, using set pieces like a screen, a bar or a couch, along with lighting changes, to quickly transport the audience from one setting to the next. The minimalistic set allows the dialogue and characters to take center stage, as well they should in a play such as this.
Romance is a favorite subject of the theater, so it’s a refreshing change for “Reasons to Be Pretty” to focus on the story of a breakup. I won’t spoil how the play ends, since part of the pleasure of the show is watching the characters wrestle with difficult decisions, but I was pleased to see that LaBute strives to find a truthful place to leave his characters. Breaking up might be hard to do, but it’s easy to watch these skilled performers at work in “Reasons to Be Pretty,” playing at Old Town Actors Studio on April 16, 17, 19, 23 and 24.
Ted Bonman teaches English and theater at Century High School.