Words hurt. And when it comes to waging a war of words, you can always count on masterfully raw playwright Neil LaBute to go for the jugular. Case in point: “Reasons to Be Pretty,” his vicious yet thought-provoking 2009 Tony Award-nominated tale of relationships gone bad currently receiving a knockout local premiere in the Mathile Theatre of the Schuster Center courtesy of Playground Theatre.
Lights up: Greg and Steph, arguing to the profane hilt, explosively dismantle their four-year relationship over an off-the-cuff comment Greg told his best friend Kent about Steph’s appearance. What did he say? He called her face “regular.” As sparks fly, Greg pitifully tries to salvage his insensitive wrongdoing, but it’s too late. Steph has had enough and there’s nothing he can do about it. But as Greg attempts to make sense of this breakup and his meandering lot in life, he’s caught in a precarious firestorm involving Kent and his wife Carly, Steph’s best friend who overheard what Greg said about Steph on that fateful day.
Director David Brush, astutely and fluidly stripping the play down to its gritty, relevant language with an edgy off-Broadway vibe, assembles a truly dynamic quartet. Playground co-founders and real-life couple Christopher Hahn and Jenna Burnette deliver tremendously compatible and visceral portrayals of Greg and Steph that cut deep with earnestness and volatility. Hahn, very engrossing as a millennial underdog, strikingly captures the vulnerability, shock and regret fueling Greg’s journey of self-discovery. In order to become a better man, a mature adult, Greg has to recognize his carelessness in letting his soul mate get away. It’s a tough lesson to learn, but LaBute doesn’t pull any punches as Greg’s fascinating evolution, accented by his desire to leave his dead-end job, climaxes with potent defiance.
The feisty Burnette, firing on all cylinders, relishes some of the nastiest writing LaBute has concocted in a brutal scene which finds Steph facing Greg at a mall food court for an airing of grievances that utterly destroys him to the core. Watching Burnette in this gleeful rage will likely send chills down your spine, but she isn’t a one-note scorned woman by any means. Her complex performance softens as Steph continues to cross paths with Greg to the point of her eventually coming to terms with the fact that he wasn’t exactly the guy of her dreams in the first place. He was never going to be the husband, the provider, she hoped for and this epiphany, albeit heartbreaking, is her truth that must be accepted. As the perplexed Carly, Kaleigh-Brooke Dillingham, memorable last fall opposite Hahn in Playground’s local premiere of “Really Really,” weaves a delicate arc bringing credence to her decision to embrace Greg as an unexpected confidant. As the obnoxious, appallingly superficial Kent, a selfish woman-chasing man-child, handsome newcomer Brett Hill magnetically commands the stage with sneering arrogance and intimidation. His final scene opposite Hahn, a cage match of sorts putting Brush’s wonderfully intimate Mathile configuration to great use as never before, becomes a compelling, unnerving battle as frustration and testosterone collide.
“Reasons to Be Pretty” is the third play of four in LaBute’s signature examination of body image including “The Shape of Things,” “Fat Pig” and “Reasons to Be Happy.” Whether or not you agree with his perspectives and the controversies they ignite, “Reasons to Be Pretty” remains a bold testament to his contemporary craft and the millennial anxiety he exposes which Playground Theatre continues to impressively explore.
“Reasons to Be Pretty” concludes today at 2 and 8 p.m. inside the Mathile Theatre of the Schuster Center, Second and Main Streets, Dayton. Act One: 60 minutes; Act Two. 60 minutes. Tickets are $20. For tickets or more information, call Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630 or visit www.ticketcenterstage.com. For additional information, visit theplaygroundtheatre.org. Patrons are advised the play contains adult language.
In related news, Playground Theatre’s 2016-17 season will consist of “This Is Our Youth” (Sept. 1-4, 2016, directed by John Ray), “Jailbait” (Dec. 1-4, 2016, directed by Burnette) and “Gruesome Playground Injuries” (March 23-26, 2017, directed by Brian DeLuca).