Is the latest Neil LaBute play a reason to rejoice? It's true that reasons to be pretty marks several big steps forward from LaBute's oeuvre of unrelenting masculine brutality and female victimization. And the play's lost none of the sharp dialogue, edgy drive, and gritty intensity of his earlier work, too. At the very least, it's reason to be cautiously optimistic.
As this energetic, often funny, drama opens, we see a foulmouthed and furious Stephanie (Marin Ireland ) tearing into her boyfriend of four years, Greg (Thomas Sadoski). He's a well-meaning schlub who works in a warehouse. He does seem to love Steph, but the slight she's screaming about ignites this play's fuse. As the basically decent Greg tries to make sense of the explosion he's unwittingly sparked, he becomes enmeshed in the macho machinations of his handsome, sleazy friend Kent (Steven Pasquale), who's married to Steph's best friend, Carly (Piper Perabo), a woman whom he admires only physically. There's still plenty of chauvinism, violence, and masculine idiocy here, but for once, it's counterpointed by a guy who seems to have a glimmer of understanding that women are, you know, people, too. What he has to learn by the end of the play is that they're nonetheless different than men.
This story of manners and misogyny benefits from a superb cast. Ireland's Steph is sharp, strident, and wholly sympathetic in her bitterness and heartache, while Perabo also shines in her smaller role as the not-so-bright beauty who knows more than she lets on. As her sexy, sexist husband, Pasquale sizes up his wife and every other woman with a practiced, impartial eye-and slowly reveals that this evaluative attitude isn't limited to women. But ultimately the play is Greg's coming-of-age story, so it's Sadoski, all wry, confused squints and slumped shoulders, whose performance stays with you. He makes Greg's puzzled grappling with Steph's response as convincing as it is moving.
It's so refreshing to see a LaBute play in which a guy-the hero, even!-actually takes real issue with sexual stereotypes and tries to understand what a woman is thinking that it's easy to overlook the play's rather marked limitations. What it does, basically, is raise its protagonist's consciousness to the level of the average sitcom. Even the foreshadowing of Greg's picking himself up by his bootstraps-his interest in the great-book classics-smacks of television's semaphoring. But that said, the fast-paced aggressive dialogue, particularly between the sexes, is far more keenly observed, the power plays more acutely depicted and the heartache much more heartfelt than in any sit-com.