A brave but flawed high school confidential
One of the reasons why the Irish Fringe scene came into existence was from a desire to see international works on an Irish stage that weren’t being produced here. In this spirit, new company Untold Wants have brought the Irish premier of Neil LaBute’s modern classic, “Reasons to Be Pretty” to Irish audiences. And it’s a brave move. Perhaps one of the reasons why LaBute’s 2008 dissection of the American, urban, working class zeitgeist hasn’t been produced before is it’s not an easy work to come to grips with. Steeped in LaBute’s infamous, invective driven dark reflections, delivered by way of long tirades, “Reasons to Be Pretty” is like going twelve rounds against an MMA champion. You’ve got to punch relentlessly, hit the sweet spots, roll with the flow and hang in there for dear life. No easy task given LaBute’s almost Mamet like use of language and character, where people are not what they profess to be and words are not saying what the words are saying. Reality is always just a veneer, a surface beneath which the really real exists, throbbing with life. Indeed, “Reasons to Be Pretty” poses challenges for even the most experienced of companies. In this brave production, showing lots of guts and gusto, Untold Wants certainly hang in there and punch relentlessly. But they flail wildly, don’t find the sweet spots or go with the flow often enough, and in the end inexperience proves itself not quite up to the task.
Looking like “Friends” with attitude, “Reasons to Be Pretty” follows a group of four working class friends during the pre-midlife crisis their lives have entered some years after leaving high school. A group of pretend adults playing at being grown-up, they’re finding that life is not quite what they hoped it might be post “Breakfast Club.” Yet even though they no longer attend high school, with its soul destroying gender values, they’ve never really left it. Greg is still the awkward book worm, hanging out with the jock and bully, Kent, for protection. Kent, a chick magnet who puts Greg down every chance he gets, has a baby on the way, a woman on the side and a trophy he wants to win so he can reclaim some lost, jock glory. His wife Carly may be sporting a bulge, but she’s still cursed by beauty and doesn’t care much for Greg. First chance she gets she rats him out to her best friend Steph, Greg’s insecure girlfriend of four years, whose face, Greg said, was not that pretty. This causes Steph to spiral into deeper insecurity and to question their relationship, with Greg back peddling as fast as he can. In what follows, the surface beauty and ugliness that masks what lies beneath begins to crack. Slowly they struggle to break free from the pernicious hold of the underlying American high school, in an effort to find themselves and each other, if they can.
In LaBute's acerbic script, characters clash round after round, emotionally eviscerating their opponents in an effort to win or defend themselves. From its opening moments it's no holds barred. Cry, cajole, charm or threaten, characters will do anything it takes to get their way. Alas, director Jessica Aquila Cymerman plays it too safe, with cast members reining it in by taking a one size fits all approach. Jack O’Dowd’s Greg is almost always casually defensive, Killian Coyle’s Kent is almost always a loud mouth braggart, Ally Ryan’s Carly is almost always secretly suffering and Gemma-Leah Devereux’s Steph is almost always self-righteously indignant. No matter what’s happening they never deviate from their set emotional states. The end result often looks limiting, charmless and uncomfortable, and suffers from an underlying tedium on occasion. Indeed, at times it looks like the early stages of a Meisner Pinch and Ouch exercise, with little pinch or ouch going on and with its four-strong cast looking like they’re delivering competing monologues. Which is a real shame, for in the final scenes with Ryan, O’Dowd and Devereux, it momentarily clicks, and there’s some genuine, but short lived sparks. Similarly, Killian Coyle, who consistently delivered the strongest performance, flared frequently throughout, igniting to life on occasion, but always having nowhere open for him to go. Fights resembled loud, blustering gunslingers squaring off, with enough distance to keep Jesus between them most of the time, spinning their guns and firing blanks blindly, missing the target most of the time. For nothing ever feels like it's really at stake, no one ever looks like they’re really hurting or going to hurt. None of which is helped by Diarmuid O’Flaherty’s unruly set design, which caused far more problems than it solved, rarely evoking anything that was worth the length of time it took to transition.
With a nod towards the title of LaBute’s follow up, this production might seem to have few "Reasons to Be Happy." Yet there are a few. It shows guts, ambition and desire. A willingness to take a risk and to start something new. We need to see works like “Reasons to Be Pretty” and Untold Wants are to be commended for attempting to do so. But this is a production that’s punching way above its weight. Brave in ambition, it’s less brave in execution, playing its cards too close to its chest. It needs to gamble more. To really pinch and punch. And there’s no reason why it should not. For there’s unquestionably some considerable talent here.
“Reasons to Be Pretty” by Neil LaBute, produced by Untold Wants, runs at Smock Alley Theatre until December 17th
For more information, visit Smock Alley Theatre or Untold Wants