‘Reasons to Be Pretty’ Is Riveting

A fireball of invective
John Lovett and Bethany Trowbridge play a couple whose marriage is under stress in Neil LaBute’s “Reasons to Be Pretty.” Dane DuPuis

One can be forgiven for reaching for a seat belt during the opening scene of Neil LaBute’s play “Reasons to Be Pretty,” now at the Southampton Cultural Center. Mr. LaBute’s characters seldom mince words, and the play opens with a confrontation between Steph (Bethany Dellapolla) and her boyfriend, Greg (Jonathan Fogarty), in which she unleashes an 11-minute fireball of invective upon learning from a friend that Greg, in a conversation at work, had referred to her face as “regular.”

Greg refuses to own up to his declaration, maintaining a sort of goofy innocence in the face of Steph’s profane and often hilarious tirade until she at last wears him down and he admits, almost pathetically, “It was meant as a compliment. Honestly.” Before storming out of the room, she replies, “Yeah, well guess what? It’s fucking not.” 

“Reasons to Be Pretty” is the third in a trilogy of plays linked by a focus on the contemporary obsession with physical appearance. We learn from Steph’s initial attack that Greg’s description of Steph’s face occurred during a conversation with his friend and co-worker, Kent, about a “hot” new hire at work. 

Musings on physical appearance and beauty occur throughout the play, including a monologue during the second act by Kent’s attractive wife, Carly, who says, “Beauty comes with a price.” However, the play is more fundamentally about how four working-class friends navigate the seismic shifts in their relationships and the disappointments of their lives.

Greg and Kent work in the shipping department of a warehouse where Carly is a security guard. After the opening scene, we encounter the two men at work and learn that Steph has left Greg, ending a four-year relationship. Over the course of the play’s two acts, which unfold over several months, Greg tries without success to earn Steph’s forgiveness, Kent confesses to Greg that he is having an affair with the new co-worker, Carly confides in Greg that she is three months pregnant and suspects that Kent is cheating on her, and Steph breaks the news to Greg that she is engaged.

Four monologues punctuate the action and give the characters the opportunity to reflect on themselves and their circumstances. Steph’s occurs in the middle of the first act and reveals a softer side to her character. After a brief tirade there is a long pause before she says, “I really thought my face was one of my better parts.”

Ms. Dellapolla’s performance as a character riding an emotional roller coaster is sensational. She is able to turn on a dime from issuing a slew of blistering epithets to moments of pain and self-doubt, riding the waves of Mr. LaBute’s dialogue with consummate dexterity. 

After her monologue, Greg arranges to meet Steph at a restaurant, where he brings flowers and tries desperately to make up. She is uncomfortable at first, reluctantly asking if she can pick up some things from his apartment and trying not to ignite a row, but it’s clear they are inhabiting different emotional worlds. He still thinks he can woo her back, until she snarls, “Flowers don’t save the day.”

As the scene escalates, Greg finally tells her to go — “you and your stupid face.” In one of the strongest bits in the play, Steph stands up on her chair and, heedless of the fact that they are in a restaurant, reads an angry and hilarious list of Greg’s flaws, from thinning hair to bad sex to his kissing with “a tongue like a poker.” The scene ends when she tells the deflated Greg, “I made this up. It’s not true. But you meant what you said.”

The best gems of Mr. LaBute’s dialogue are Steph’s. She is the strongest and most dimensional character. However, Mr. Fogarty, John Lovett (Kent), and Bethany Trowbridge (Carly) all deliver nuanced performances. Kent is the least likeable character, the one who most embodies the misogyny and self-delusion typical of many of Mr. LaBute’s men. 

In his monologue at the end of the first act, Kent observes that having a pretty wife has disadvantages: “Once you do get her, you have to keep her.” At one point he lets his cocky facade slip briefly: “This is the life that God laid out for me in his infinite plan? I got a job in a warehouse, and a limited set of skills, and a Chevrolet I’d like to take a blowtorch to.” 

Joan Lyons directs skillfully, and she and the cast are up to the challenge of a play shot through with fast and furious language and emotional ups and downs. 

If there is a flaw, it is in the play’s denouement. In the penultimate scene, Steph tells Greg about her engagement, and he announces that he is returning to college. Both actors are emotionally on point, but the scene is a bit too long.  

Despite Greg’s winning and often amusing self-deprecation, his monologue, which concludes the play, feels a bit anticlimactic insofar as it offers a too-tidy wrapping up of a messy period in the characters’ lives.

However, the reservations about the last two scenes are mere quibbles, and they are a rare weakness of the writing and not the production. The final performances of this otherwise riveting play will take place Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2:30. Tickets are $25, $12 for students.