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Pinch n' Ouch Theatre's lookin' good in reasons to be pretty

Company's production of Neil LaBute play shows ambition, energy

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In the preface to the published edition of reasons to be pretty, playwright/filmmaker Neil LaBute describes the confrontational comedy as "the first coming of age story I've written." The inaugural production of Atlanta's Pinch n' Ouch Theatre, reasons to be pretty may mark the writer's coming of age as well.

LaBute's best known for his film In the Company of Men, and dark dramas that subscribe to a misanthropic view of humanity. A little nihilism is all well and good, but the sociopathic cruelty of his seemingly "normal" characters often comes across as a cheap thematic device at the expense of credibility. As a director, LaBute has moved into his Hollywood hack phase with remakes of The Wicker Man, starring Nicolas Cage, and Death at a Funeral, starring Tracy Morgan and Chris Rock. reasons to be pretty, however, turns out to be one of his most mature works, and earned a Tony nomination for Best Play in 2008.

reasons to be pretty follows LaBute's The Shape of Things and Fat Pig in a theatrical trilogy unified by a focus on our culture's obsession with physical appearances. pretty opens in mid-argument as twentyish Greg (Jacob York) tries to take back some regrettably candid remarks he made about his girlfriend Steph (Rachel Richards) and her looks. He never expected to her to hear the comments, let alone put their four-year relationship in jeopardy. Outraged Steph drops f-bombs while Greg ducks, covers and tries to mollify her. Later, Steph gets revenge by enumerating Greg's physical flaws in minute detail — at a crowded food court.

A college dropout, Greg works the night shift at a Costco-type price warehouse with his swaggering pal Kent and his wife Carly (co-artistic directors Grant McGowen and Bree Dawn Shannon). Kent belongs in the company of LaBute's perfect Neanderthals who bully their beta male buddies and ruthlessly judge women by whether they're hot or not. Over the course of the play, Greg's relationships put his loyalty, honesty and self-respect to the test. York neatly captures how the unassuming slacker shakes off his go-along-to-get-along passivity. In a second-act encounter with Steph, Greg behaves less nicely to her, but we appreciate that he's standing up for himself.

The play's banter frequently hinges on sarcasm and hyperbole. The Pinch n' Ouch production sets a snappy pace reminiscent of "Friends" — but in a good way. Director Sean Gallagher unquestionably brings out the material's comedic potential. It's said that one measure of good directing is that if a play's dialogue is somehow inaudible, you can still follow the emotional beats. pretty follows that rule with a vengeance. The actors give robust, physical performances that occasionally push some traits too far.

For instance, Richards portrays Steph as so angry and aggressive throughout the first act, it's difficult to see why the characters have anything to do with each other. She nevertheless gives a poised, arresting performance, although she's arguably too striking for a role that allegedly has "regular" features. Similarly, McGowen makes Kent's thuggish machismo into a caricature reminiscent of Kevin Dillon's strutting dimwit Johnny Drama from "Entourage." Kent could be a dumb kid brother to the likes of Aaron Eckhart from In the Company of Men, and the playwright gives the role a comeuppance that could be LaBute's retroactive revenge on all of his macho sadists.

Originally formed in New York City, Pinch n' Ouch shows ambition by staging its first local show on the Alliance Theatre Hertz Stage, where comparable troupes would occupy a black box space like 7 Stages. The energetic young company makes a promising debut that proves Neil LaBute's work can be more than skin deep.

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