Garrison Keillor's closing benediction over Lake Wobegon, "where all the children are above average," and Ray Stevens' best-forgotten "everything is beautiful in its own way" sprang to mind not very long after I began watching CAST's new production of Neil LaBute's Reasons to Be Pretty. Steph is demolishing her loving relationship with Greg because of a careless observation he has made in a breakroom bull session with his closest co-worker, Kent, in answer to Kent savoring the physical assets of the heavenly Crystal, a new employee.
The argument between Steph and Greg ratchets upward in fury, with numerous flip-flops by both on whether they wish to hear or repeat what he said to Kent. We finally learn that Greg had the audacity to describe Steph's face — despite adding the declaration that he wouldn't trade her for a million bucks — as neither beautiful nor pretty. "Regular" is his fatal word, crossing a line for Steph that is irrevocable. Her concept of love postulates that a woman must be beautiful in a loving man's eyes or else his love is not true.
Nor does Greg get any sympathy — or apology — from Carly, the security guard at Greg's workplace who blew the whistle on her friend's beau. She's able to gloss over Kent's lascivious contributions to the taboo-breaking conversation, despite the fact he's Carly's husband and she's pregnant with his child. No, Carly is proud of the loyalty she has shown to her friend Steph, and if she reported that Greg called her ugly, that's no biggie. Ugly and regular mean the same thing.
Following Greg's evolving fortunes and perspective, LaBute will likely seem more sympathetic to the male perspective, portraying women as irrational, judgmental, clannish and vain. But really, when you tally up all of the boorish, bullying and womanizing Kent's odious traits, you can't help concluding that LaBute is fairly even-handed in casting his jaundiced eye on humanity.
There are multiple reasons for Greg to dislike all three of the other people onstage, but only Kent makes him explode. Ironically, I couldn't help entertaining the notion that if Greg could have mustered the same intense passion in pursuing or possessing Steph as he did in standing up to Kent's taunts, his love life would be less pitiful.
LaBute wouldn't have you think that Greg is perfect, for romantic passion isn't his only failing. He comes to realize that his relationship with Steph was stagnating, that he had no real initiative at work, or any fundamental drive to get ahead in life. Greg's ability to admit his past complacency stamps him as a hero in LaBute's déclassé world. Naturally enough, Steph has the sense to doll up in the wake of the "regular" catastrophe. Over and over, she gravitates toward reconciling with Greg. But she can't admit that her cockeyed orientation about what she needs from a man is wrong, in spite of the fact that she still loves him.
If memory serves, set designer Tim Baxter-Ferguson is bringing us the first revolving stage to the new NoDa CAST, a circle bisected by a wall, so the action moves smoothly as stagehands load the unseen half of the turntable for the next scene. Two of my favorites are the first round of peace talks, where Steph hilariously goes ballistic at a food court, and the rumble on a baseball diamond, where I felt my heart beating as the Greg-Kent confrontation heated up.
Tommy Foster directs meticulously in his CAST debut, clearly understanding that Greg's tormentors need to find a groove somewhere between realism and absurdity. Elizabeth Byland certainly inhabits that moderately exaggerated naturalistic groove with gusto. Each time she seems irresistibly drawn to Greg, Byland has us believing the chemistry despite her past tirades. In her CAST debut, Katherine Murdoch hasn't strayed far enough from humdrum realism as Carly, particularly when she responds so softly early on to Greg's rebukes. Yet Murdoch eventually arrives close to the right place when Carly gets her inevitable comeuppance.
Many of the slacker attributes we saw last year from Grant Watkins in The Aliens carry over to Kent, even though he's quite a loathsome pig this time; for Watkins manages to be vulgar, corrupt and domineering with a quite similar nonchalance. Even Kent's drive is pretty cool, which is why we can easily believe that Greg has been intimidated by him most of his life.
I had to check the playscript to see whether it was altered to fit Nick Culp as Greg because, despite his faux pas describing Steph, it is Greg whom LaBute ends up describing in most detail. Culp is a wonderfully adorable punching bag all evening long until he toughens, but it's especially wonderful to watch him wincing as each salvo from Steph — beginning with his thinning hair — lands on target as she pays him back for his slight slight with infinite interest.