THEATER | Walking Shadow’s “reasons to be pretty” at the Guthrie Theater: A dream cast, miscast

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As soon as the lights rose on reasons to be pretty, my companion and I started discussing whether we’d tell a friend’s spouse if we learned that the friend was being unfaithful. I said that I absolutely would…and then I started thinking of specific examples. None involve close friends, but I was able to think of a few cases involving acquaintances. In reality, I’ve kept my mouth shut—and so have all the other people who were privy to that knowledge.

That’s hardly a scientific study, but my hunch is that my experience is representative. If your spouse is cheating on you, people who know probably won’t tell you—even people you consider good, trustworthy friends. That’s a brutal truth to swallow, but playwright Neil LaBute is about nothing if not the telling of brutal truths.

Among the LaBute plays I know, reasons to be pretty (2008) is a relatively unflashy script. There are a couple of twists, but nothing like the whammys that conclude Some Girl(s) (2005) or The Shape of Things (2001). A character is cruel to others—this is LaBute, after all—but the cruelty seems to stem more from selfishness and immaturity than calculated manipulation. The play doesn’t smack the audience in the face; instead, it walks slow circles around its themes. How important is it to be pretty? Is prettiness in the eye of the beholder? How much power do our imaginations have to bridge the gap between real and ideal?

Previewing this production, I wrote that its dream casting makes it a must-see. Having seen the show, I’d still say this is a dream cast—but maybe not the dream cast for this particular play. The script is painfully specific about these characters’ physical appearance: listening to the words, you think, I know these people. The woman who’s “cute” but not “pretty,” the insecure bombshell, the slimily charismatic bully. Andrew Sass slides snakily into his role as the sleazy, physically dominating Kent; but as Greg, Joseph Bombard is a scowling, tightly-wound knot of self-hate who gives us little reason to understand why his girlfriend Steph (Anna Sundberg) ever fell for him.

This is ripe territory for the unfailingly intense, compelling Sundberg—who was just recognized with a well-deserved emerging artist Ivey Award—but here, director Amy Rummenie has miscast her. Even Sundberg’s fiery, nuanced performance can’t entirely bridge the distracting gap between the supposedly homely Steph and Sundberg’s classic, high-cheekboned beauty. Even beautiful people can be insecure about their appearance, but the bitter punch of LaBute’s script hinges on the fact that when Greg says his girlfriend isn’t particularly pretty, he’s actually right. As Carly, Rachel Finch is deeply sympathetic but isn’t a match for the forceful Sass; the erotic tension Sass and Finch found with their vulnerable characters in Anon is largely absent here.

Overall, though, this show works: it winds up and hits home when it needs to, particularly in the quietly bittersweet encounters between Bombard and Sundberg, and between Bombard and Finch. As the play runs its course, the focus shifts from the troublingly selfish actions of Sass’s superconfident Kent; as Kent becomes increasingly cartoonish and irrelevant, the other three characters are left to pick up the pieces of things they wish had never broken.

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