For the last 20 years, Neil LaBute’s plays and screenplays have been about one subject: miscommunication.
Characters lie outright (“In the Company of Men”), leave things unsaid to create false impressions (“The Shape of Things”), speak in ways that sound profound but obfuscate (“Nurse Betty”) or talk in half-truths to soothe their troubled psyches (“Some Girls”).
He dips his pen in acid again for “Reasons to Be Pretty,” now running at Carolina Actors Studio Theatre. It opens in mid-volcanic eruption, with two people bellowing at each other over an ambiguous phrase likely to sever their relationship. After 2 1/2 hours of evasions, accusations and repetition, it ends in silence (welcome silence!) that could possibly have a healing effect but has mostly left characters isolated and depressed.
The play has LaBute’s main virtue, dialogue that captures the way human beings address each other (or fail to). And it has the main LaBute vice: He sets up simple relationships, says what he must in 90 minutes, then goes on for another hour, saying it again and again with diminishing returns. (I rarely respond to his blunt misanthropy, but you can’t call LaBute’s point of view a vice.)
He has created only one rounded character here: Greg, a warehouse clerk who makes little use of his intelligence. Speaking of his girlfriend, he remarks, “Steph’s face is just regular, but I wouldn’t trade her for a million bucks.”
Steph (Elizabeth Byland) goes ballistic, tells him she can’t stay with a man who finds her unattractive, then moves out. Greg (Nick Culp) half-confides in his only friend, Kent (Grant Watkins), a horndog oaf whose mind is on the new babe at work. The other member of the quartet is Kent’s wife, attractive Carly (Katherine Murdock), whose vacuousness can be measured on the Richter scale. (She has never heard of Edgar Allan Poe, among other things.)
Culp’s slow-building performance reveals Greg to be a clueless, well-intentioned guy baffled by women and buffaloed by Kent, who uses him as an alibi for philandering. He’s willing to put work into a relationship but doesn’t know where to begin.
The others are archetypes, and thinly drawn at that. LaBute has a crucial problem in construction: From the start, there’s no evidence that Greg and Steph belong together. If we’re supposed to root for them, her rages seem selfish and immature, and he seems like a passive dolt. If we’re not, her mercurial changes and final monologue (which comes out of nowhere) fall flat.
None of this is the fault of the actors, though Watkins slightly overplays Kent’s cruelty from the start. (Even Greg would tire of this bully faster than he does.) Byland’s explosive performance is fun to see, and Murdock almost makes Carly an individual, rather than a stereotype; I felt for Carly but never believed in her.
A turntable revolves from scene to scene, making quick transitions possible. Director Tommy Foster generates tension where LaBute gives him the chance, but the dragged-out confrontations of the second act stymie him at last.