Neil LaBute's Reasons to Be Pretty, the final play in a trilogy that also includes The Shape of Things and Fat Pig, ostensibly mines some rich, complex subjects: the delicate nature of women's feelings about their own looks; men's capacity for deceit and selfish cruelty, or just plain cluelessness; and the inability of men and women to bridge the gap that eternally divides them. But for LaBute, subjects take precedence over people, and they circle this play (which had a successful Off Broadway run last year) like hungry lions in search of characters to eat. What's left, in the end, are a pile of bones and a few indigestible scraps of something that sounds an awful lot like a master's thesis. Its title might be "Male-Female Relationships: The Dark Side."
Reasons to Be Pretty opens with a screaming match: Steph (Marin Ireland) has heard from her best friend, Carly (Piper Perabo), that her boyfriend, Greg (Thomas Sadoski), has been making disparaging comments about her looks, comparing her to a pretty female co-worker. She rails at him with the fury of a pissed-off Greek goddess; he, trapped in the body of a mere mortal schmo, proffers a few limp rejoinders and then gives up. Steph walks out, permanently, and the two other people in Greg's little social circle—Carly and her husband, Kent (Steven Pasquale), both of whom are also Greg's co-workers—pretend not to take sides, even as they make Greg feel worse about his predicament. It doesn't help that Kent swaggers around the break room at work, flexing his considerable muscles and spouting misogynist rhetoric, much to Greg's dismay and horror.
LaBute wants us to face, with bitter laughter, the uglier aspects of human nature. But he doesn't love his characters, beyond the fact that they serve his purpose. It's no wonder the performers here—directed by Terry Kinney—have trouble fleshing out those characters. They're not acting, they're delivering material; and they have no chance of outrunning the lion.
Heavy metal is so intrinsically theatrical that it makes sense to build a musical comedy around it. But can you parody a form that's already a parody of itself? Rock of Ages is a mangled singing, dancing extravaganza set to the hair metal of Whitesnake, Journey, and Bon Jovi, among others. (Def Leppard, proving their members are gentlemen of taste, wouldn't grant the rights to their music.) An aspiring rock star and an actress hopeful (played by Constantine Maroulis, of American Idol fame, and Amy Spanger) pursue their dreams, and love, in late-eighties Los Angeles. By night, they work in a Sunset Strip rock club that an uptight European developer (Paul Schoeffler) hopes to demolish and replace. There's also an emcee (Mitchell Jarvis), who narrates the action like a Greek chorus made up of one desperate Jack Black imitator.
Rock of Ages, which was written by Chris D'Arienzo and directed by Kristin Hanggi, and which played Off Broadway last year, is too full of self-conscious winks, nudges, and wine-cooler jokes to be much fun. There's energy onstage, all right, but it's unfocused and muddled. The dancers—the show's choreography is by Kelly Devine—wriggle about in epaulette-shouldered leather jackets and neon animal-print Spandex, trying to conjure the big-haired ghosts of a lost era. They only end up looking cheap and desperate. This is no way to get your rocks off.