Confession: I know my LaBute. So this review may potentially a) make me sound smarter than I actually am and b) go into more textual depth than I normally do.
Playwright Neil LaBute is a man after my own heart. He is fascinated with the psychology of people, the dysfunctional nature of relationships and how much damage can be done with language. Amongst it all his caustic humour pervades the page as he examines his subjects under the microscope to get a closer look. He is, in essence, a writer of the contemporary ‘morality tale’.
LaBute is a favourite of Darlinghurst Theatre- he’s probably been staged there more than anywhere else in Sydney that I’ve seen. But LaBute is deceptively complex. He, like Mamet and Shephard, is responding to the American society in which he has been raised. Naturally there are universalities in themes and ideas that transcend specifics but there is something ingrained about American culture, class and attitudes that struggle to be fully realised anywhere else outside of the States. You know what I mean? I can be sitting there watching an Australian play that has fairly universal themes but I recognise these characters, I work with them, I am related to them, I probably am one of them. There is a slight disconnect in American realist characters on our stage that even though I recognise the archetype and so many characteristics are just human and not cultural, there are tiny things I don’t fathom that distance me slightly from who these people are. It takes a very skilled performance and direction to realise the complete layers of cultural complexity, if it can be done at all. This doesn’t mean the play can’t stand on its own, it just means that nailing the characters and their relationships is essential or the disconnection widens and the play feels superficially entertaining.
‘Reasons to be Pretty’ deals with America’s (and the world’s) obsession with beauty with an added coming-of-age story. A boy (Greg) grows up and becomes a man.
To me Darlinghurst Theatre, under the direction of James Beach, got the humour and language of LaBute’s blue-collar play ‘Reasons to be Pretty’ (not all of it- the production cut each characters’ major monologue to the audience). The audience were certainly entertained, especially by the male characters of Greg (Andrew Henry) and Kent (Stephen James King) but Beach missed the morality tale of LaBute’s work. Beach’s decision to play Kent as a caricature means that we are not surprised by his betrayals, tantrums, misogyny or double-standards. It makes him funny but we don’t associate him as ‘real’. This is a missed opportunity to explore LaBute’s point that these are real people. This behaviour is engaged in by real men. How much more powerful would it be to have this dialogue and action from someone who the audience perceive as a three-dimensional real character?
Having said that, Beach and Darlinghurst theatre certainly understand their demographic. You only have to hear the clinking of beer bottles dropping between the seats as they clearly express their pleasure or friends of the cast supportively yelling “you’re hot” during the show. They are there to have fun (I’m not making a judgement) and aren’t really invested in the idea of introspectively examining their own beliefs and values on a Friday night. So I can confidently say that most of the audience walked out thoroughly satisfied with this interpretation of the play.
Onto more specifics: it’s hard to kick off a play mid-fight. The intensity required of the actors to convince the audience that we are in the middle of what is the ‘end’ of a relationship we haven’t even been introduced to yet is a hard ask. There is no room for error. Julia Grace (Steph) and Henry’s Greg did a pretty good job of this- although climbing on the table felt a little contrived and yelling in that space is hard. Acoustically, Darlo Theatre needs a lot of work (please take note potential sponsors) so vocals get lost amongst the echo and it makes accent work truly difficult.
Andrea Espinoza’s design could have been played with more too. LaBute’s plays exist in a geographic (and often moral) vacuum, in familiar but non-specific or hermetic settings. Instead of trying to create a realistic setting or wheeling out a restaurant wall, maybe a more expressionistic representation could have been employed. And there’s a slight (but maybe petty) disconnect between references to blue uniforms but wearing a black one. I know it’s minor but audience do pick up on those things. None of these things are deal breakers, just food for thought. The set and costumes were certainly functional, just sometimes clumsy.
The decision to accompany scene transitions with a mixed tape of power ballads sprung out of key moments of the previous scene were a sentimental touch that didn’t help in delivering LaBute’s work. A rousing rendition of Tina Turner’s ‘We Don’t Need Another Hero’ post fight with Greg & Kent or James Blunt’s ‘You’re Beautiful’ post Steph’s outburst on being referred to by her boyfriend as having a “regular face” just misses the point. LaBute is not sentimental. He’s brutal. Go with it.
I still for the most part enjoyed this play. I thought every actor did what was asked of them and the comic timing of Andrew Henry and Stephen James King was particularly good. And when James Beach says in his program notes “My main hope is simply that tonight entertains you and reminds you of moments when love went wrong”, this is what you get.
I just wish he gave me more.