Neil LaBute’s Reasons to be Pretty, currently being staged by Player’s Theatre at McGill, is not an ordinary play, precisely because its subject is so ordinary. LaBute’s theatre aims to confront reality, or get as close to representing it as possible. Traditional dramatic guidelines have been cast aside through the necessity of contemporary urban space. These are ordinary lives, played out in an ordinary fashion. The theme (as the title suggests) is beauty and body image. Though not consciously-referenced in the play, Kant and the lineage of aesthetically oriented philosophers are an inevitable influence. Reasons, however, is more concerned with how these issues play out in people’s lives, with how they create the real drama of relationships (sexual or platonic), and how they form each character’s notions of beauty.
To allow this intimate association of thought and action, the play is divided up by the monologues – or “moments,” as LaBute calls them – of each of the four characters. The plot is organized around two relationships, both of which become strained by cultural norms of feminine beauty. We work our way through each character’s perspective on this issue, allowing us, momentarily at least, to sympathize with each character’s situation. They all express conflicting ideas on beauty: Steph (Alexandra Montagnese), a hairdresser, believes she lacks it, while Greg (Martin Law), her boyfriend, loves her for her personality, but upsets her by stating that she looks “regular.” Carly (Beatrice Hutcheson-Santos), on the other hand, is excessively attractive, but her lover Kent’s (Alex Gravenstein) jealous guardianship of her beauty drives them apart.
These “moments” of pure communication contrast drastically with the play’s narrative of miscommunication. The plot hinges on the inability to unify an interpretation of language. A compliment is translated into a critique and thus the semiotic system (upon which drama inherently relies) breaks down. With this focus on the intricacy of language, LaBute moves away from the more visceral representations of violence and misogyny seen in his other plays. These issues, however, continue to lurk beneath the surface.
David Armstrong, the play’s director, chose to have the other characters present while each gives their monologue. Their subjectivity cannot escape their social relations; they are watched by the people they discuss, as well as by the audience, all combining to form a sort of collective unconscious. The actors’ delivery is finely balanced between classical Shakespearean soliloquy and direct address – natural speech with enough poignant simplicity to be provocative. This stark separation from dramatic realism could be tricky, but it is handled well, partly due to live musical performance. Schulich Music student Danji Buck-Moore’s original score of jazz-influenced mood-pieces allow scene transitions to flow emotively, the audience left still considering the tone of the scene just passed and expectant of those to come.
The bareness of the plot puts unusual pressure on the actors’ ability to fully inhabit their roles. Class poses a problem here. As the actors try to become working-class, an awkward effort to locate an “authentic” working-class reality inevitably ensues. In a post-play question and answer session, the actors claimed to have taken workshops and, somewhat problematically, watched suitable television shows to overcome this problem. Hence, their performance is a representation of a representation, distanced and clearly impersonated. There is an awkwardness sometimes in their manners of speaking, and occasional instances of anti-intellectualism are unconvincingly portrayed. Gravenstein seems most natural in his role, delivering his lines aggressively, complimented by his physically burdened mannerisms. Unfortunately, Law, whose role is central to the play, does not seem to quite manage this, still remaining the awkward actor playing the awkward character, rather than just the awkward character himself. In a long play (two hours) this does cause a problem, but the play’s force endures.
The originality of LaBute’s script, Buck-Moore’s wonderful music, and the anticipated intensity of the monologues, result in a production that makes us question where (and what) the “beauty” in our lives really is.