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Reasons to be Pretty by Neil LaBute, Boys’ School Theatre, Smock Alley

Writing.ie | Stage & Screen Reviews

By Sheena Lambert

Review of REASONS TO BE PRETTY by Neil LaBute.

An UNTOLD WANTS production at the Boys’ School Theatre, Smock Alley.

Review by Sheena Lambert for www.writing.ie

Most Irish people of a certain age will be familiar with the text: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” having had it comprehensively drilled into them in the name of their secondary school education. But it could be said that Keats’ words neatly summarise the theme of Neil LaBute’s play Reasons to be Pretty which had its Irish premiere on Smock Alley’s Boys School stage last evening.

LaBute, an American film director, screenwriter, playwright and actor has an impressive writing resumé. A theatre major with more than twenty plays to his name, he is still probably best-known for his movie In the Company of Men, and his more recent direction of the hilarious Death at a Funeral. He has also written numerous screenplays and adaptations in his fifty-three years.

Reasons to be Pretty opens with a bang. Indeed the first few scenes are a writing masterclass in the art of arriving late and leaving early. The play revolves around the relationships of two couples, its intention seemingly to highlight how a few thoughtless words can bring down a home. Greg, the fulcrum of the play, is accused of saying something hurtful about his partner’s appearance behind her back, and the resulting domino effect on the four characters’ relationships is gradually played out.

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Interestingly, for a full-length play, we learn very little about any of the four characters on stage. The only insight we really get into them is in episodic video-recorded interviews. Most scenes are a dialogue between two of the characters (the only two who do not share stage time are the two women, played convincingly by Gemma-Leah Devereaux and Ally Ryan) and while the whole point of the play is the depth in the meaning of the words, overall the words themselves feel generally inchoate. The scenes certainly highlight the way people use other people to reflect a vision of themselves, but the play suffers for the want of some realistic interludes. At times, it felt a little Godot-esque, but without the rich vocabulary. The baseball scene (while acted superbly by Jack O’Dowd and Killian Coyle), was an example of where the writer might have been a bit more brutal with his eraser. The overall impression was of one idea spread extremely thinly over a long 2.5 hours.

Having said that, the production by UntoldWants theatre was excellent. The set and setting was wonderfully effective. Jack O’Dowd’s performance as Greg put one in mind of a young David Schwimmer (who coincidentally made his Broadway debut in another of LaBute’s plays). The Boys’ School at Smock Alley is a wonderfully, creaky setting – perfect for Shakespearian productions, but equally perfect for the intimate viewing of a play like Reasons to be Pretty, where the audience already feels that they are playing a fly-on-the-wall role.

In such a venue in the oldest part of Dublin, I couldn’t help wondering what the play might be like with a local setting and local characters. Too often, excellently produced, independent Dublin theatre is let down by haphazard American accents. Certainly the Reasons to be Pretty text as written would lend itself to four Dublin accents, and undoubtedly the characters and themes would fit as prettily in Dublin or London as Kansas. And an entertaining punch-up is an entertaining punch-up whether it’s at the side of a baseball diamond or a hurling pitch.

Reasons to be Pretty certainly appears to want to be a commentary on the importance of words and how we speak to each other in society. Words matter. But is the point of the play to highlight the damage a few careless words can wage, or is it the direct opposite? According to the program, this production of Reasons to be Pretty was prompted by the recent election results in America, and the devastating effect loose words in powerful mouths can have. But it could be argued that the play highlights the fact that loose words are just that – loose words. Were there not fundamental flaws in Greg and Steph’s relationship to begin with, would those loose words have been enough to break them apart? And can the same be said for politics?

Whatever your take on it, Reasons to be Pretty is an interesting insight into one aspect of the human condition, and an interesting example of contemporary American theatre. As another Leaving Cert favourite once noted, it’s all just “words, words, words”.

In any case, this production is well-worth the trip into town, and a great way to side-step bustle of the pantomime that is Christmas.

(c) Sheena Lambert

Sheena Lambert is a novelist and playwright from Dublin. Her second novel The Lake is available from HarperCollins Killer Reads.

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