Monday, November 9, 2009

Theater review: GableStage's 'reasons' mines white-hot emotions

Erin Joy Schmidt and Ricky Waugh in reasons to be pretty.
(Photo by George Schiavone)

By Hap Erstein

Neil LaBute’s reasons to be pretty, with which he made his overdue Broadway debut last season, is considered more gentle than his usual exercises in the gender wars. Maybe so, but you would never know it from the opening tirade by a young, attractive woman who goes ballistic at her boyfriend and breaks up with him.

His crime? She heard from a girlfriend -- and he eventually, begrudgingly concedes that it is true -- that he described her looks, in comparison to those of another woman’s, as “regular.” If LaBute has it right, as he so often does in skirmishes between the sexes, women who hear that will be appalled and men will go, “Yeah, so what?”

Regardless of your reaction, be assured that LaBute will continue to raise the emotional stakes, and GableStage artistic director Joe Adler and his wily cast members will match the playwright stride for stride as he marches his characters to the dramatic precipice. LaBute is a favorite of Adler’s, who produced both of the other plays in a trilogy on our obsession with traditional beauty -- The Shape of Things and Fat Pig. The two men are again on the same strident wavelength and the results again are white-hot, even if we sense that LaBute is treading in territory he has already covered.

Most of the action takes place in the employee break room of a warehouse where Greg (the guy who uttered the offending description), his dense-and-proud-of-it buddy Kent, and Kent’s security guard wife Carly, work. The locale suggests the economic prison is which they are trapped, but LaBute is more interested in the straitjacket they each are confined in by their egotistical out-for-themselves mindsets.

In addition to Greg having to adjust to life without Steph, he will carry the burden of lying for arrested-development Kent about sleeping around on Carly, who happens to be noticeably pregnant. When Greg eventually decides he will no longer be a party to Kent’s infidelity, that leads to a knock-down-drag-out fight between the guys. Still, betrayals have been triggered and they do not end easily.

Per usual, LaBute has written his male characters with more dimensions than his women, but he gives Steph a couple of killer monologues that Erin Joy Schmidt devours in her GableStage debut. There is the fury of that opening diatribe and, even better, an acid-drenched recitation of Greg’s physical shortcomings, delivered in the highly public setting of a shopping mall food court.

Ricky Waugh handles well the emotional meandering of Greg, holding his own in the quartet, even though his is the most reactive character. It is just his luck that he has so many scenes with the terrific Todd Allen Durkin as child-man Kent, who raises immaturity to an art. He manages to keep the role just this side of a caricature, suggesting that he, too, is trapped in his limited world view. And Amy Elane Anderson, Adler’s discovery for the recent Speed-the-Plow, shows she is accomplished and versatile as Carly, vulnerable yet vindictive too.

Ellis Tillman helps define these characters with his blue-collar, lived-in clothes and Lyle Baskin has a few scenic surprises, harnessing the wide GableStage playing space to the play’s several settings. If anything, reasons to be pretty may be better enjoyed by those coming fresh to the world of LaBute, but even those familiar with his nasty twists and turns will likely enjoy what Adler makes of them.

REASONS TO BE PRETTY, GableStage at the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables. Through Nov. 22. Tickets: $37.50-$45. Call: (305) 445-1119.

Ricky Waugh, Amy Elane Anderson
and Todd Allen Durkin in reasons to be pretty.
(Photo by George Schiavone)

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