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Reasons to Yawn at Neil LaBute

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Reasons to Yawn at Neil LaBute

Provocateur playwright/filmmaker Neil LaBute traffics in alternate reality, in a world where perfectly timed jabs and witty comebacks abound. He transforms “what we wish we could say” into pretty bits of dialogue. It’s been obvious right from his audacious directorial debut, In the Company of Men, that LaBute is in love with the stylization of language over emotional substance. That film—brutally shocking in its misanthropy, with its use of words as blood sport—was a risk-taking revelation for its time. But in the dozen years since In the Company of Men stormed the indie scene, LaBute hasn’t grown much as an artist. He’s been creating on autopilot, merely repeating himself with colorful stunts that masquerade as deep explorations of the human psyche. Simply put, if you’ve seen one LaBute piece you’ve seen them all. Which brings us to his latest play, reasons to be pretty, now playing at the Lyceum Theater.

Reasons stars a terrific ensemble that, unfortunately, doesn’t have a lot to work with. (Nor does set designer David Gallo whose minimalism—row upon row of S.O.S. pads, cereal and other household goods stacked along the wings, neatly framing an uncluttered, Walmart-like break room—is as uncreative as Terry Kinney’s conservative, straightforward direction. Why even bother to create a facsimile of reality with such an unreal play?) The cast is engaging while their characters aren’t. Thomas Sadoski plays blue-collar, box-lugging good guy Greg, and Marin Ireland his high-strung, hairdresser girlfriend Steph. Steven Pasquale tackles Kent, the good-looking, misogynist buddy role, while Piper Perabo takes on Kent’s security guard wife Carly. Reasons begins with the breakup of Greg and Steph after she learns through Carly that Greg referred to her face as “regular.” For the next two hours it’s classic verbal knockdown, drag-out LaBute, a Darwinian roundelay in which characters vie to stay one step ahead of those they supposedly love.

Because Greg and Steph speak to each other using an abundance of “whatevers,” “whatnots” and “likes” that feel as forced as the faux-real dialogue in Juno, they are rendered an unbelievable, one-dimensional couple, causing us to care less about their breakup. (Why is such a laidback guy like Greg involved with a skittish nutcase who “murders his pets”—i.e., flushes his fish down the toilet—anyway?) Sure, LaBute, who seems to revel in his perceived complications of men and the simplicity of women, creates this ludicrous premise as a straw that broke the camel’s back, as a way into the more complex problems of the couple’s relationship. But those issues, which only become clear in the end, aren’t connected organically to the rest of the play! In other words, we only “hear” through Steph what those problems were at the play’s conclusion since LaBute hasn’t bothered to show us. We never get the sense of the characters of Greg and Steph struggling throughout, with deeper issues beneath the high-pitched, staccato dialogue.

Reasons is stuck on warp speed, with no sense of tempo (often the actors reactions are a beat ahead of the dialogue that instigates them). The cast is in a mad rush, acting as fast as they can, as if they have an inkling that if they slow down there’ll be nothing beneath those bright, shiny words. So we get Kent shallowly holding forth on a subject, concluding with “But then I’m not Nostradamus,” which leads to Greg’s response of a sarcastic, “Yeah, thanks for clearing that up.” (Ba-da-boom. Insert canned laughter.) Or we get lines like Greg’s, “Yup, that’s me, old Drew Carey Jr.,” and the unsubtle Phil Collins tune “Against All Odds” in a food court, which leads one to wish LaBute would turn off the boob tube, pull himself out of the past, and jump headlong into life itself for inspiration. By the time we get to that heart-to-heart scene between Greg and Steph, when moments of clarity are finally allowed to emerge, when the reality that people stay in relationships hoping their fantasy of the other person will come true—as opposed to seeing who that person truly is—it’s too late in the game. Not just for Greg and Steph, but for the playwright as well.

Simply put, Reasons is a sitcom for the liberal intellectual set. It allows the audience to pat itself on the back thinking they’ve learned something about the power of words and their effect on relationships (to bask in the illusion that they’ve been enlightened) when really all LaBute has delivered is a nonstop aural confection—lollipop shtick. The writer/director has always been savvy enough to create sparkly dialogue (“We don’t all get to Barney Fife our way through life,” Kent tells Carly in sitcom language that even references a sitcom!) that lures talented performers, those actors in turn elevating his work to a level above his own talent. LaBute pens fast and furious sugar highs that last only for the duration of a show. His plays don’t stay with you after the curtain comes down.

Since LaBute is not a visual playwright or filmmaker (and doesn’t have the talent of David Mamet or Woody Allen to overcome the deficiency) one wonders why he doesn’t just stick to writing short stories and books and leave the plays and films to the truly brave. A theater force like the playwright/filmmaker Martin McDonagh can get away with an overemphasis on language because there is so much heart beneath the surface of his work. The excitingly idiosyncratic Charlie Kaufman can do the same in film because of his deep humanity. For these writers, words lead to something incredibly profound, whereas for LaBute words go around in circles—the play as treadmill. There’s a nasty fight scene between Greg and Kent at the end of Reasons that only serves to highlight the difference between a fearless artist like McDonagh (who, coincidentally, debuted The Lieutenant of Inishmore at the Lyceum) and the risk-averse LaBute. A battle like that for McDonagh would have drawn buckets of blood (both literal and metaphorical), while LaBute’s take is no more shocking than a busted lip.

Brooklyn-based writer Lauren Wissot is the publisher of the blog Beyond the Green Door, the author of the memoir Under My Master’s Wings, and a contributor to The Reeler.