Neil LaBute’s reasons to be pretty
What would you do if your partner said you have a “regular face”? Perhaps you are someone who truly believes inner beauty is more valuable than appearance and wouldn’t take offense; perhaps you, like me, come from a country that is one of the largest consumers of plastic surgery, and would leave the theatre planning on scheduling an appointment with a surgeon; perhaps you would cry all night long, or throw a fit. In Neil LaBute’s reasons to be pretty, that exact comment sets off the entire conflict of the play: Greg says Steph, his girlfriend, has a “regular face”. An apparently innocent comment raises a lengthy discussion and makes us question the extent to which we've taken the importance of physical appearance.
I find he's one of the most provocative contemporary playwrights. In an interview to The New York Times, he says "it's part of [his] makeup to ruin a perfectly good day for people". It’s more than about ruining a day, though: it’s about calling attention to very important issues, such as the overwhelming toll beauty has on our society, which aren’t much addressed. LaBute says he "write[s] things on a page [he doesn’t] want to have to deal with in life". But if not addressed, these issues slowly start weighing on us and our society, and we eventually pay an extremely high price—both physically and psychologically.
To be honest, I haven’t known LaBute’s work for that long. I learned about him only a few years ago, after seeing an adaptation of reasons to be prettyin my hometown, Rio. The famous Brazilian director João Fonseca did a beautiful job at transmitting, in Portuguese, LaBute’s message. His adaptation travelled through multiple cities in Brazil, and every time it returned to Rio I rushed to purchase a ticket. I've seen it five times and it continues to move me just as much as the first time. Not surprisingly, reading it a few years later had the same provocative impact.
I absolutely love what LaBute says about his script's rhythm and tone: many plays have amazing, beautiful lines, but they don't portray real life. His goal is precisely to mirror our day-to-day. He highlights, for example, that we often arrive home after a discussion and think about all the things we should've said—but didn't. His characters frequently experience that: "Yeah, it's... ummm... I'm working over at a salon nearby, so that's... but yeah".
In the Brazilian adaptation, Fonseca ends the play with all four actors looking into individual mirrors—which are actually glasses, allowing the actors to look straight into the audience. With very serious facial expressions, they write beauty-related phrases on the mirror—phrases against beauty standards. It's an amazingly powerful ending that makes us leave the theatre questioning our priorities.
When asked what he wanted the audience to take away from the play, LaBute said he would like people to “see a little bit of their own lives up on stage”. As someone who watched it in the theatre, I can say that I, as well as the majority of the audience, definitely related to most scenes and characters. All throughout, people were nodding silently with an expression that showed they knew all too well what the characters were experiencing. When LaBute goes to the theatre, he expects “to be challenged and provoked and made to laugh and cry and get pissed off a bit,” and he hopes his plays will have the same impact upon his readers and his audience. reasons to be pretty is the only one I’ve read so far, but it definitely does the job!
By Marcia Ramos