Talk about planting foot squarely in mouth. When Greg (Steve Froehlich), after a brew or two, opines among friends that his longtime girlfriend, Steph (Rachael VanWormer), has a “regular” face, all hell breaks loose. The very first scene of Neil LaBute’s reasons to be pretty explodes in f-bombs (more like Steph-bombs), with clueless Greg the recipient of all the invective. And this is nothing compared to the laundry list of Greg’s physical deficiencies, including those below the belt, that Steph loudly recites in a painful café scene later in the play.
Isn’t love a wonderful thing?
LaBute’s sharp-edged candor and thinly veiled misogyny are on vivid display in the San Diego premiere of the 2008 reasons to be pretty, directed at ion theatre by Claudio Raygoza. Its big-picture commentary on the question of beauty seems in Act 1 largely a case of semantics. It isn’t until the second act, when Greg experiences a few crucial moments of clarity, that reason to be pretty becomes more about people than about relationshippy philosophy. Froehlich, a newcomer to ion productions, brings empathy and insight to blue-collar Greg in Act 2, demonstrating the character’s growth from earlier when he thrived on sarcasm and indignation. Greg’s maturation effectively underscores the lack of same in fellow box-lifter Kent (Jorge Rodriguez, all physicality), who remains in Stanley Kowalski mode throughout. Kent’s pregnant security-guard wife, Carly (Lynnia Shanley) gets the chance, courtesy of Greg’s conscience, to escape victim mode (horndog Kent’s cheating on her). And Greg nobly steps aside when his ex gets engaged to another guy. (That was fast!)
The action is crisp, full-throated and unapologetic in its adult tantruming, of which all but Carly are sorely guilty. Having seen the light of his own childishness, the reformed Greg is actually a likable dude, and you hope he follows through on his intention to go back to school and make something better of himself. He may get Wonder Woman and the Bionic Woman mixed up, as he does in an Act 1 quip, but he learns fast – and the hard way – that no woman wants to be called “regular.”
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.