By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 30, 2010; C05
Guys can be so clueless.
Case in point: Greg, the rumpled but attractive Everyschlub of Neil LaBute's delectable "Reasons to Be Pretty." He has a good thing going with Steph, a hairdresser he has lived with for four years, until one day he makes the lame move of remarking on her looks to a third party. Not in intentionally hurtful terms; just not, well, in the most sensitive or flattering way he could have come up with.
So, sure enough, Steph gets wind of it, blows her stack -- and off we go on a prickly and perceptive stuff-hits-the-fan evening at Studio Theatre, from the playwright who brought you "Fat Pig" and "The Shape of Things." Like those earlier comedies, "Reasons to Be Pretty" focuses on our unhelpful predilection for judging all books by their covers, on how ruinous it is to try to calibrate human relations to some idealized standard of physical perfection.
Studio should have a juicy little hit with "Reasons," because it's one of those plays you go to with a date or spouse or friend or partner, then spend the after-hours sorting out which character missed what signals and how couples stuff can go so wrong.
It also happens to be LaBute's most effective work, one with a soft spot as well as abrasive facets, and a plot that doesn't hinge on some contrivance, such as a shocking reverse. We know -- from LaBute's other plays and elsewhere -- that men behave badly. But as "Reasons" would have it, women's vanity about their appearance can be as much to blame for the horrendous state of our body politics as the masculine tendency to engage in sexual objectifying.
This production benefits greatly from astutely balanced casting and the ministrations of director David Muse, who knows how to steer it for laughs, for pathos, even toward a sense of danger. (Strange: The show with one of the most persuasively staged fight scenes in memory lists no fight choreographer.)
It remains on a gratifyingly strong footing because of the splendid anchoring performance of Ryan Artzberger, whose Greg comes across as an appealing manual on how to make a bad situation worse. It's an indication of Artzberger's charming hold on us that we identify with Greg even when he feels compelled to corroborate the lies of a truly reprehensible buddy.
Artzberger gets sturdy support from the trio of actors who fill out the tale: Margot White, who plays the tempestuous Steph; Thom Miller as Kent, Greg's strutting co-worker and the embodiment of every ghastly macho excess, including too much testosterone and self-adoration; and Teresa Stephenson as Carly, a fetching security guard with an insurmountable disability: She's married to Kent.
"Reasons" is set in a thoroughly nondescript exurb, where Greg, Kent and Carly toil in unremarkable shift work. LaBute likes American drabness as a blank background. His characters upend the sterile rule books of comportment in malls and Italian chain restaurants. (Debra Booth's set pieces are mere suggestions of ordinary spaces: a factory lunch room, the plastic chairs of a food court, although we could do without the obligatory over-amplified rock music during scene changes.)
On this occasion, it is the relationship faux pas by Greg, a bookish warehouse worker, that sparks the conflagration. The play begins in Greg and Steph's apartment, with Steph erupting in a torrent of profanity over Greg's casual remark about her appearance, which she has been told about by Carly. The outburst itself is more than a little ugly.
Does Greg grasp precisely why Steph is so volcanically offended? One of the more enigmatic aspects of "Reasons" is that you're never quite sure that chasm is bridged, that Greg truly comprehends the line he has crossed. Isn't it enough, Greg asks, that he loves her and prefers her to all other women? Steph can't forgive the utterance, as palpable a betrayal for her as an act of actual infidelity.
Perhaps it's because Greg is privy to the more corrosive secrets that men may not share with women that he thinks he should be let off the hook. He sees what the vile Kent, for instance, is doing behind Carly's back with the factory hottie. Miller is first-rate in creating the impression of a louse, and in Kent's ultimate meltdown at a company baseball game, the actor expertly rekindles memories of those schoolyard bullies and their infantile acts of aggression.
White, too, brings a believably coarse edge to Steph; she and Artzberger have a terrific scene together -- their war is consistently entertaining -- in the waiting area of a restaurant, at a time when both of their characters profess to be moving on.
Of course, we wait, too, to learn whether the confused but repentant Greg is going to find a way back into Steph's good graces. A sign of LaBute's mature handling is that where they do end up manages to feel at once surprising and satisfying. And, like much of what we've gleaned, worthy of a healthy argument on the way home.
Reasons to Be Pretty
by Neil LaBute. Directed by David Muse. Lighting, Michael Giannitti; costumes, Kate Turner-Walker; sound, Neil McFadden. About 2 hours 10 minutes. Through May 2 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Visit http://www.studiotheatre.orgor call 202-332-3300.