Neil LaBute is responsible for several acclaimed plays and films, such as In the Company of Men and The Shape of Things, that are considered to be deep and uncomfortable explorations into the dark side of humanity. What is mystifying is that very few of his stories are staged in San Diego, so it is almost a miracle when one gets produced. Thankfully, the Ion Theatre Company just opened his Tony-nominated comedy-drama, Reasons to be Pretty.
After four years of being in a committed relationship, Greg (Steve Froehlich) and his girlfriend Steph (Rachael VanWormer) get into a heated verbal argument. She is upset upon finding out that he told his close friend, Kent (Jorge Rodriguez), that her face was “regular” as opposed to beautiful.
While trying to repair his relationship with Steph, Greg spends a lot of quality time with Kent. Their bond is tested after Kent reveals a secret being kept from his wife, Carly (Lynnia Shanley).
LaBute’s writing immediately grabs the audience with harsh dialogue and profanity that will make some people squirm. This is not because the use of language is offensive, it’s that the verbal fighting feels painfully real.
Having these situations staged in the intimate Ion Theatre makes attendees feel like they are eavesdropping on an actual couple bickering with each other. The intensity here is similar to the disturbing extended conversation between the leads in the movie, “Before Midnight.” Both tales will strike a chord with those in committed relationships.
One issue on opening night was that some of Froehlich’s use of swear words came across as a bit theatrical and VanWormer’s voice was a bit too loud. As the production went on, they both became more comfortable with LaBute’s writing style and this issue ceased to exist.
To counterbalance tough to watch sequences, a lot of humor is used throughout, especially in interactions between the intelligent Greg and the immature man-child, Kent. Their chemistry with each other is so convincing, that it would not be surprising to find out that Froehlich and Rodriguez are chums in real life.
What might shock fans of LaBute the most is the amount of heart that is on display as Reasons to be Pretty develops. There are several powerful acts of compassion from a couple of the characters, and some people might actually be moved to tears.
Director (and Ion co-founder) Claudio Raygoza finds a lot of depth, even when no dialogue is being spoken. He allows the actors to express a range of emotion that shows hidden vulnerability to the flawed adults.
The ensemble all depict many different sides to their roles. Froehlich can be full of sarcasm and gets many laughs coming across as a smart aleck. He ultimately becomes an empathetic protagonist as more information is revealed about him.
VanWormer starts out being harsh and extremely sensitive. She sadly expresses how Greg’s insensitive comments have made a huge and lasting negative impact on Steph’s life.
Rodriguez gets many chuckles as the ridiculously lazy, Kent. He perhaps has the most dramatic transformation from likeable slacker to something much more haunting and upsetting. Rodriguez handles all of this with complete authenticity.
As Carly, Shanley portrays her as being ultra-serious, with a complex moral code, and a lack of understanding sarcasm. Eventually, she becomes an endearing presence through her extended conversations with Greg.
Reasons to be Pretty is a slice of life experience and provides a great introduction to a unique playwright. Though parking is limited, and days are busy, it is worth finding the time and a spot to see this adaptation. There is a sequel called Reasons to be Happy and hopefully, Raygoza will direct it sometime in the not too distant future.