Turn Down the Volume!

Illustration by Wes DuvallPhoto: Joan Marcus

Does Neil LaBute take coffee breaks, or sleep, or pause to consider? His new play, Reasons to Be Pretty, marks his seventh opening night in the last four years—and that’s not counting one-acts (of which there have been several) or films (of which there’s been one so far, with another in the can). His improbable rate of production has made Off Broadway a blur of starry misanthropy: Ben Stiller spouting suburban racism; Andrew McCarthy hectoring Jeremy Piven out of loving a fat girl; Ed Harris memorializing his dead wife (who’s really his mom).

LaBute steers clear of his worst habits this time. There is not, for instance, the kind of silly gotcha ending that marred the closing moments of Wrecks, Some Girl(s), and In a Dark Dark House. Nor does he just wallow in some miscreant’s antisocial adventures. In fact, LaBute’s protagonist here, a zhlubby warehouse worker named Greg (Thomas Sadoski), is basically—wait for it—a good guy.

While talking to his friend and co-worker Kent (Pablo Schreiber), he stupidly makes a dismissive remark about the looks of his girlfriend, Steph (Alison Pill), and even more stupidly lets Kent’s wife, Carly (Piper Perabo), overhear him. When Carly tells Steph—for reasons unknown—about the remark, Steph unleashes a tirade so profane that Greg compares it to an Eddie Murphy concert. (Steppenwolf co-founder Terry Kinney’s forceful direction of their opening fight shows once again that if bad stuff is about to go down, it’s a good idea to get a Chicago guy to stage it.)

As in Fat Pig and The Shape of Things, LaBute wants to consider how people cope with beauty, or a lack thereof. The trouble with this roundelay of disses is his inexplicably vicious handling of Steph, whom he depicts as a weepy, shrieking, potty-mouthed basket case. She greets Greg’s puppyish attempts to reconcile with hostility, from threatening to kill his fish to reading a list of his physical defects aloud in a food court. A play like this one, in which everybody gets his self-image challenged, should lead you to confront what’s wrong with your own. Instead it leaves you wondering what mix of pathologies make Steph react so hysterically to an isolated cruelty from an essentially sweet guy.

There’s no denying the LaBute touch: the little flicks of dialogue that make, say, Greg’s relationship with the boorish Kent ring dismally true. But once again we’re getting LaBute diluted, as his harrowing insights get lost in a longer, not especially convincing story. That’s one reason The Great War, his contribution to Ensemble Studio Theatre’s one-act-play marathon, is so welcome. It shows him at the full strength he’s rarely attained lately.

In Andrew McCarthy’s production, Laila Robins and Grant Shaud play divorcing spouses who have reconvened to savage each other, mainly with a jovial tone. The icily caustic Robins says that a death cloud hangs over the marriage, adding, “I don’t say that with malice.” “Fuck you, okay?” offers Shaud elsewhere. Though the scene shapes up like yet another fight over who gets the kids, it turns out—ah, the LaBute twist—to be a brutal negotiation between two selfish people over who’s getting stuck with them. Weighing their options, Robins says, “We can do anything. Any thing.

That chilling line made me feel, for the first time in years, that LaBute’s champions might be onto something. When he’s not burdened by the cross-plotting of Reasons to Be Pretty, when he sticks to the short format that served him so well in his early monologue series bash, he really does have a fearsome knack for depicting men and women in moral free fall. Too bad he’s got another full-length play opening in six months.

Body Awareness, by the new playwright Annie Baker, handles the subject of self-image with the grace that eludes LaBute. The play traces “Body Awareness Week” at a fictional Vermont college as it’s experienced by a lesbian academic, her partner, her partner’s son (who may or may not have Asperger’s), and the visiting male artist who bunks with them. In her best moments, Baker pokes fun at the characters—preening, teetotaling, puppet-theater-watching, organic-soup-slurping lefties—without ever letting the fun feel mean-spirited. Like Gina Gionfriddo, she has a rare gift for being at once sensitive and scathing.

Some of the plot twists are implausible, and a few others can be seen a mile off, but Baker shows real promise all the same. As the wonderfully stone-faced Peter Friedman dishes out some dubious, dubious sex advice, you hear the sound of a sly comic voice on the rise.

Reasons to Be Pretty
By Neil LaBute.
Lucille Lortel Theatre. Through July 5.

The Great War
By Neil LaBute.
Ensemble Studio Theatre’s Marathon 2008. Through June 20.

Body Awareness
By Annie Baker.
Atlantic Stage 2. Through June 22.

E-mail: theatercritic@newyorkmag.com.

Turn Down the Volume!