Reasons to Be Pretty, which opens this weekend at San Francisco Playhouse, is written by a man and follows a male character, yet its subject is womanhood, at least as our society defines it: how a woman's beauty is perceived, and the consequences of that perception.
Playwright Neil LaBute has made a name for himself in the past 15 years with latter-day morality plays like In the Company of Men and The Mercy Seat that expose characters', particularly male characters', worst sides. But Reasons to Be Pretty, which was written in 2008 and earned LaBute his first Broadway production and Tony nomination, was taken by some critics as a sign that LaBute was going soft. The male characters don't do things like abuse a deaf woman, as some of his other characters did; instead Kent (Patrick Russell) just cheats (that's all!) on his wife, Carly (Jennifer Stuckert), and Greg (Craig Marker) fails to properly extol the attractiveness of Steph (Lauren English), his girlfriend of many years.
Yet though LaBute's work is sometimes maligned as misogynistic, he hints, through Greg, that his male characters are just as poorly served by female standards of beauty as women are: "We keep buying the swimsuit issue and the, you know, bikini posters and I guess that is just how it happens, how we get past our teenage years, imagining that women like that'll find us attractive and that gives us just enough hope and desire to stagger through high school until we can get out there and take up all the, like, shit jobs that the smart guys don't want."
Greg isn't usually so good at talking, though. The play opens in the middle of one of contemporary drama's bitchiest verbal blitzes, all because Greg called Steph "regular"-looking behind her back. English initially struggled with this scene. "It's a lot easier for me to identify with Greg for 75% of the play," she says. LaBute "doesn't explain why Steph reacts so strongly," why it "triggers a deep unworthiness for Steph."
For director Susi Damilano, the reaction doesn't need much context. "I think [women] are this ferocious," she says, and she appreciates that LaBute dares to portray a woman at her worst; many, though not all, of LaBute's previous female characters have been virtuous victims.
In a recent phone interview, LaBute defended Greg. "He never says anything disparaging about her looks," he says from New York. For him, Greg's remark is more about "how familiar somebody can become to another person, and how we can never say the right thing."
Part of that comes from the characters' class. "The original title of the play was The Way We Get By," LaBute says. "That spoke to the fact that these people spend their time in the shadows; they work the third shift in a factory. They deal with problems like arguments when they're very tired."
As a result, characters don't have rosy dreams about true love. "I don't think Steph and Greg were necessarily destined to be together," LaBute continues. "Maybe they shouldn't be dating. They had to really work at it. They had a relationship that was in trouble, so when she heard something about how she looked, on top of everything else, that was the catalyst to break up. But something else could have broken them up as well."
The catalyst to break up is also a catalyst for Greg to grow up, and as the play progresses, his perspective anchors it. For English, because the play explores an issue that inspires such strong feelings in women, the production also requires a female perspective. "If we're going to bring this play to you," she says, "I felt obligated to say, 'Hey women of the Bay Area, what do you think?'"
English and writer Karen Macklin, both locally based, devised a companion project for the play that involves 10 Bay Area women, whose ages range from 16 to 75. Macklin interviewed the women about their relationships to beauty, while English, who's also a photographer, took pictures of the women looking "regular" and "pretty," which each woman could define however she wished. These photographs, paired with excerpts from the interviews, will be displayed in the theater's lobby.
English says that her subjects, in one important way, aren't that different from Steph. "The only thing that's been consistent is protectiveness over 'regularness,'" she says. Subjects asked if she was trying to make them look unattractive. "I totally identify with that," says English. She's considering playing her part without any makeup on, just a washed face. "No one's ever seen me like that," she says.
As for the future of the project, English hopes it will take on a dramatic life of its own. "Ultimately, this is the beginning of a play," she says. She's not alone in seeing another act in Reasons to Be Pretty. In New York, LaBute is about to open a sequel, Reasons to be Happy, which will feature the same four characters three years later. LaBute says it's not centered on female beauty, but it does continue Greg's coming-of-age story. And, true to LaBute form, "It opens with another shouting match."