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May 12, 2010

Guest blog post: Review of 'Reasons to be Pretty' at Studio Theatre

By Mary Carole McCauley

Sun arts reporter

There's an explanation why "Reasons to Be Pretty" has been extended twice at Washington's Studio Theatre, why potential customers are waiting in the lobby before performances, seeking turned-back tickets.

From the first, expletive-laden line of dialogue to the surprisingly satisfying finale, this production of Neil LaBute's black comedy crackles. The very air in the room quivers with an invisible, barely contained force.

"Pretty" is the third offering in LaBute's trilogy of plays exploring the Americans obsession with physical beauty. For once, the plot is populated not by cubicle inhabitants in suitcoats, but by blue-collar workers who labor as warehouse stockers, a security guard, a hair stylist. With this shift alone, one layer of hypocrisy and pretense gets stripped away, though -- this being LaBute -- plenty remains.

When the play opens, Steph, the hair stylist, has just learned that her longtime boyfriend, Greg, has referred to her appearance in less than flattering terms. Steph goes berserk; what she knows, but can't find a way to articulate, is that a male shorthand exists in our culture in which the language of desire often substitutes for the language of affection. When Greg confesses to his best buddy, Kent, that he finds Steph's looks to be "ordinary", what he's really admitting is that he doesn't love her wholeheartedly -- despite his protestations to the contrary.

Though LaBute's plays deal ostensibly with male-female relationships, I've always thought his true theme is male friendships and the quest for dominance. This is the area in which his revelations are the most surprising and disquieting.

Typically, he looks at the dynamics between an alpha male and a more submissive -- and seemingly more evolved -- friend. Greg, for instance, spends his work breaks reading literary masterpieces. But, even LaBute's most seemingly civilized guy characters possess a streak of hidden cruelty. If these men don't act on their hostile impulses more often, it's because they fear retaliation.

In the universe of "Reasons to be Pretty," Kent is the top dog, and actor Thom Miller imbues the role with a finger-snapping, nerved up vitality. Kent is utterly without conscience, and therefore, is perversely attractive. He has at his disposal the energy that most of us use to squelch our ugliest impulses.

LaBute provides Greg with something he denies most of his other characters -- the capacity to learn from his mistakes. Even in the earliest scenes, actor Ryan Artzberger gives his shambling slacker the suggestion of a spine, which strengthens perceptibly as the play progresses. As the play concludes, Artzberger even seems to be standing straighter.

In Kent's crude assessment, Carly, the security guard, knows that her only significant asset is her striking good looks. Carly may be a bit slow on the uptake, which puts her at a disadvantage. But actress Teresa Stephenson grounds the character with a welcome substratum of self-respect.

Margot White is a convincingly volatile as Steph, even if the actress is considerably prettier than her character is supposed to be. No one would ever describe White as plain. But, at times, White over-relies on hand gestures. She seems to want to shove away not just Greg, but the audience.

Scenic designer Debra Booth has created a versatile set consisting of a formica-topped table and two molded plastic chairs. The set can be rolled on and off the stage quickly -- a significant advantage in a play which changes locations roughly every ten minutes. And, just as important, it grounds the four characters in an environment as banal as it is uncomfortable. Just try to relax when you're sitting in one of those chairs.

Director David Muse, who will be taking over the artistic helm of Studio Theatre next season from the departing Joy Zinoman, not only elicits gutsy performances from his four actors, he keeps the pace moving along at a rapid staccato clip.

"Reasons to be Pretty" runs through May 23 at the Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. N.W., Washington. Show times: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; 2:30 p.m., 7:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. $35-$63. Call 202-332-3300 or go to

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:23 AM | | Comments (0)

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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