Neil LaBute once again takes no prisoners, tackling the taboos and unspoken truths of contemporary American life. This play concludes LaBute’s trilogy exploring America’s obsession with physical beauty, a trilogy he began with two Studio Theatre favorites, runaway hits The Shape of Things and Fat Pig. In this fiercely dark comedy, the “bad boy of American theatre” returns with a play sure to scintillate and enflame audiences as he takes us on a wild ride through the national obsession with what it means to be pretty.
Why are you so fascinated with the American fixation on physical beauty?
Well, you've partially answered your own question by mentioning 'the American fixation on physical beauty. It's not just me that is fascinated but most of the people around me, both men and women, of all ages and sexes. Whether we've been trained by our parents and publicists and commercials or we have some innate pull inside of us toward all things beautiful, it remains a topic that I have found both intriguing as a person and dramatically fertile as a writer. Why do we crave it, both for ourselves and in others? What price will we pay for it? What actually is beauty? Great questions to ask at a dinner table and terrific fun to dissect on the stage. I've also spent such a large part of my life being held up as a male example of beauty that I felt it was time to understand why people were so drawn to my own looks (that last part is a bit of a fib).
Unlike Fat Pig and The Shape of Things, the world of Reasons to Be Pretty is a blue collar one. How do you see class playing a role in our obsession with physical beauty?
I think that there is probably a division in what various classes consider beautiful in the same way that the money divide helps us make decisions about various things in life. I can easily imagine my father--who was a truck driver--seeing the penthouse of Donald Trump or the Hamptons home of Jerry Seinfeld and scoffing at it as he mutters: "I wouldn't take that piece of shit if they gave it to me." Now, is that true? In reality, why wouldn't he? He could sell it and buy anything else that he wanted. The idea, though, that his values have been molded by his specific section of society to see something else as 'beautiful' is very possible. To my father and his contemporaries, to wear a Versace shirt would be to die a thousand deaths. I would honestly believe that in his eyes a 'Member's Only' jacket is much more desirable (and attractive) than one designed by Tom Ford or Hugo Boss. And the same goes for physical beauty. While the blue-collar worker may see the beauty in a face that appears on the cover of BAZAAR, he or she has been led to believe that an attractive young woman working at Hooter's or a local cheerleader is actually more beautiful (or at least in their same league).
The conflict of this play hinges on semantics. Greg believes he has said one thing and Steph hears the same words but thinks he means something entirely different. Why do you think their misunderstanding is so irreconcilable?
I think the thematic elements that deal with 'beauty'--especially once the monologues that dealt with that subject were removed [an earlier draft of Reasons to Be Pretty contained a number of direct-address monologues]--had less to do with the breakup of Steph and Greg than the fact that they were in a relationship that was going nowhere and Steph, perhaps even unwittingly at first, jumped on the next major fight (the one that happened to deal with her looks as seen through the eyes of her boyfriend) and used it as a catalyst for change. She instinctively knew that it was time to move on and that this argument was the beginning of the end. As much as she still loved him, Steph knew that Greg was not looking for the same things in life as she was at that time and that time was slipping by. That's not to say that she wasn't horribly put off by the fact that he called her "regular" looking--and yes, that one beat is all about the semantics of a word--but more than even that she knows that as a couple they are drifting and she had to move off in another direction if she was going to survive or, more than that, thrive as a person.
You say that this is the first coming of age story you’ve written. How do you see Greg growing up and does this reflect where you are as a writer?
I don't think this idea of 'growing up' should be taken too literally, at least not for me. The ending one sees now on the play is not what I originally wrote: what is now 'bittersweet' was once more 'bitter' than anything. Through working on the show with a terrific director, actors and dramaturg I discovered that I was, in this play, trying to say something new and different and I eventually arrived there. Greg makes a choice at the end of the play to let Stephanie go off and marry someone else even though she gives him the chance to take her back--I believe he makes an adult choice (maybe even his first) when he realizes that her needs are more important than his own and he sends her off to 'be happy.' I've written about a lot of boy-men who are selfish and scared and needy and bullying and all the rest--a real gallery of rogues--but this time out a boy grew into a man. Who knew? It might even happen to me one of these days.
Some of Steph’s most memorable moments – the opening outburst and her humiliation of Greg at the mall – portray her as extraordinarily aggressive. Do you see her reactions as justified?
In the moment, yes. I think she's a passionate person and her emotions get the better of her in those scenes, particularly when she's dealing with some of Greg's more passive/aggressive tendencies. Greg, as much as I like the character, can be a little maddening at times. I always imagined that Steph grew up around a bunch of brothers and was maybe even the baby sister, so she was coddled by the boys but also ran with the pack and that fuels some of her outbursts in the present. She is quick to yell or scream or slap or even hit when she wants to be heard or be loved or get her way. It's not always attractive but it's true for a certain kind of person. I like that their fictive relationship moves in the opposite direction from most stories; Greg and Steph are first seen in the midst of a terrible fight and even though they break up and move on, our last image of them is quiet and soft and loving. A last kiss that they secretly both want more of. I grew up around a lot of male aggression but I've definitely seen the other side--the bullying female. She exists. Steph is probably one of them but that doesn't make her a bad person or unlovable, she has just been raised to use those tools first when trying to get her needs met and I think this is also the story of a woman who finally comes into her own and finds a way to get those needs met and discovers a few new tools that allow her to soften and be vulnerable and, ultimately, to grow as a person. She and Greg both grow up over the course of the play, they just happen to grow in different directions and finally, they grow apart.