Reasons to Be Pretty (Shots in the Dark – Columbus, OH)

Unhappy people sure do talk a lot and still not really get across what they mean; that’s what I took away from Shots in the Dark Independent Theatre Company’s production of Neil LaBute’s Reasons to Be Pretty. Oh, and young straight couples can be loud, obnoxious, and superficial – who knew, right? First performed in 2008 and then given a limited run on Broadway in 2009, Reasons to Be Pretty examines the lives of four twentysomething friends and how their lives are effected when an offhand comment is taken the wrong way. Everyone has experienced the feeling of being misunderstood and having stuck one’s foot in one’s mouth, but this group of two couples (Greg and Steph – Kent and Carly) have a lot to learn about saying what they mean and meaning what they say.

Chris Ceradsky is Greg, the well-meaning boyfriend who inadvertently gives a backhanded compliment to his girlfriend in response to his friend praising the gorgeous face of a new co-worker. He says he is okay with the “regular” face of his girlfriend, though he maddeningly doesn’t elaborate on the things he does like about her (like he should have – such a dolt!). Chris is a curious performer, all limbs and gangliness, a cross between Ray Bolger and Alan Alda. His hands are always moving and expressing, though he sometimes comes off as fidgety and lacking for some bit of business to do with his hands. Chris needs to slow down just a bit in his delivery and listen more to his cast members. So much of acting is listening and reacting, and too often it felt like Chris was swinging the bat before the ball reached him. It doesn’t help that he is playing such a weak character for much of the play, but his arc of growth ends up being quite satisfying in the end with a well delivered monologue. He’s the backbone of the play and in every scene; it can’t be easy, but Chris succeeds more than he fails.

Kristin Basore is Steph, Greg’s “regular” faced girlfriend. She starts the play off cussing a mean streak, and she has no problem appearing to be a harpy. She is meant to start off as mousy, dressed in jeans and an unflattering top, and then go through a transformation decked out in heels and a smart skirt, but a pretty girl is a pretty girl. Steph has personality and wit, no doubt cultivated as a result of not relying on being the prettiest girl in the room; still, like anyone, she doesn’t want her perceived shortcomings spoken about so casually, especially by her boyfriend. I believed Kristin in the part, though I can also see the part being modulated more to not always be a ten on the bitch meter. It’s too easy to write her off as a bitch, as Kent does, because it doesn’t require any introspection; Steph is probably like most women – insecure about being insecure.

Jacob Sabinsky plays Kent, the superficial jerk that talks all about body parts but nothing of anything deeper. The character is fairly despicable, and yet Jacob is handsome and appealing – a smart casting choice as he has a way of making what Kent says palatable to a degree. Jacob came off as the most relaxed and confident performer in the play, and he was frighteningly engaged during a fight scene in the second act that was so intense that I looked away. When I looked back, Jacob was yelling at the imaginary crowd (the scene takes place at a baseball field) and making eye contact with me and other people in the audience. Talk about an uncomfortable moment, but it was exactly right and took talent to pull off.

Caroline Rose Thoma plays Carly, the pregnant pretty girl wife of Kent. Her character never has anything smart to say, as if pointing out how her beauty perhaps kept her from developing other parts of her personality. Caroline seems miscast but applies herself well, her character’s insecurity feeling genuine even if her devastation is not. Caroline looks like she is still in high school, smart skirt and pumps notwithstanding, and she doesn’t seem to have experienced a real heartbreak yet, or at least that’s how it seemed to me. Her apparent inexperience in acting worked for her in a way; her sometimes stilted line readings gave her an otherworldly presence, perhaps unintended but still interesting.

Reasons to Be Pretty is staged in the round in the wonderfully small Green Room at The Garden Theatre. Director Patrick McGregor II shoots for a minimalist approach and it scores, with the barest essentials needed to convey locations on display when needed. The funniest set piece is that of the bed that opens the show, which is nothing more than a frame with a comforter on it – no pillow, no mattress. Talk about uncomfortable, but I’m sure that’s the point; the hard bed is a perfect visual metaphor for the state of Greg and Steph’s relationship. The limited lighting works well, and I liked the confessional-type area where each of the four main characters have The Real World-like confessional monologues. I didn’t like the music that would play between scenes as it was too on the nose, commenting on the action or mood in a very paint-by-numbers way or just randomly trying to evoke the ’80s-early ’90s. I’m sure some quirky instrumental would’ve worked better and reminded people that it was a comedy, easy to forget when some of the funniest lines fly by at breakneck speed.

Neil LaBute writes dialogue that is often deceptively insightful while also being littered with expletives. In an effort to write more like how people talk, his work can sometimes sound a bit rough and unpolished. Still, Reasons to Be Pretty is a show that nearly demands a discussion afterwards, and it’s the perfect show for couples to attend with other couples. Anyone who has ever been in a relationship will recognize aspects of an ex or themselves in the characters, not exactly a good thing but telling nonetheless. I know I had a long, thoughtful discussion of the characters and situations after attending last night with my friend Jocelyn, and we were both glad we went. It isn’t a perfect production, but it’s thought provoking and entertaining – an admirable effort by a team of young performers still learning and growing.

** / out of ****

Reasons to Be Pretty continues through to July 12th in Columbus, OH, and more information can be found at http://www.shotsinthedarkitc.org/

Jocelyn Nevel and I at Reasons to Be Pretty.
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