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Dec 31, 2018 11:58 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Tough Love In Neil LaBute's 'Reasons To Be Pretty' At Southampton Cultural Center

Bethany Dellapolla and Jonathan Fogarty.  DANE DUPUIS
Dec 31, 2018 12:20 PM

Joan Lyons will readily admit that she is a big fan of Neil LaBute. This, despite the fact that his plays can make for tough love at times. Those who saw “The Money Shot” two years ago at the Southampton Cultural Center, Ms. Lyons’s directorial debut, can likely attest to that.The fact is, everything that fans love about LaBute is also what they hate about him. His plays often deal with contentious relationships between the sexes, and he’s known for characters that are frank, crude and occasionally despicable in motive—yet they are also capable of deep understanding with a tendency to lay the truth bare just when you need it the most.

“I love LaBute. He’s a really tortured soul, and he tortures his characters,” Ms. Lyons said during a recent interview in East Hampton. “But he always finds one character he’s kinder and gentler to. It’s always interesting to find out who and why that is.”

Audiences will have an opportunity to explore a new LaBute play next week when Center Stage at the cultural center opens “Reasons to Be Pretty,” a four-hander with Ms. Lyons at the helm. Like the earlier LaBute production she directed, it offers language and themes that can be raw, disturbing and oh-so-relevant in this age of missed social cues, unrealistic expectations and the advent of the #MeToo movement.

“My youngest daughter was a theater major at college, and she turned me on to this play,” Ms. Lyons explained. “They performed it when she was at school, and she brought it home and I liked it. We used it in acting classes at Center Stage. It’s a contemporary piece and a straight show, not something we were doing a lot of at the time.”

But the play became something more than a class exercise when it came time to choose a show for this first production of 2019 at the cultural center. Despite reading several possible contenders, Ms. Lyons realized that nothing spoke to her like “Reasons to Be Pretty.” Though reluctant to do another LaBute play, after consulting with Center Stage founder Michael Disher, she was convinced this was the one.

“He said, ‘We have to make our choices. If this were the last play I was going to direct, would I do this one?’”

Ultimately, she decided that yes, LaBute it would be a second time around, even if his work does lie outside the realm of typical theatrical Center Stage offerings.

“You get used to doing a certain genre, and people expect it. We want to consider audiences and what they want to see, but we also want our season to be productive and meet our budget,” Ms. Lyons said. “We also want to put something on that isn’t going to turn people away.

“There were friends of mine who came to ‘The Money Shot’ who might not have come to other things.” she added. “This is for a younger audience. It has a younger cast and a storyline that is edgy.”

Things heat up right out of the gate in “Reasons to Be Pretty.” The play opens with Greg (Jonathan Fogarty) engaged in a profanity-laced battle with his longtime girlfriend Steph (Bethany Dellapolla).

The fight stems from a seemingly innocent comment Greg recently made to his best friend and co-worker, Kent (John Lovett). Kent is a misogynistic philandering cad who, despite being married to the very good-looking Carly (Bethany Trowbridge), has a wandering eye and feels compelled to share with Greg his opinions about the attractiveness of a recent female hire at their company.

“Kent is talking about the new girl, who is beautiful, and Greg says something like, ‘Maybe Steph’s face is regular, but I wouldn’t trade her for a million bucks,’” Ms. Lyons said.

Not a terrible thing to say, except that the only part of the conversation that makes its way back to Steph via her best friend Carly is the fact that Greg thinks she is just “regular.” Steph sees it as an insult. She wants to be beautiful in Greg’s eyes and is angry and hurt by the comment, so she calls it quits with him.

With his relationship on the rocks, Greg turns the tables on his best friend by sharing some intimate information with Carly about Kent’s infidelities.

Though “Reasons to Be Pretty” is a tale of betrayal and deceit, as well as the subjective notion of beauty, at a deeper level it is also about a failure to connect.

“None of the characters have anything going for them,” Ms. Lyons said. “They’re not educated and I think they feel like they’re not going anywhere in life—but they don’t really try to go anywhere.”

While ambition may be in short supply, there are plenty of misunderstandings to go around, including the fact that Steph is not able to tell Greg what she wants and needs from him, which is to feel beautiful in his eyes. Her inability to share with Greg her insecurities about her looks is compounded by Greg’s own avoidance of the topic altogether.

“Greg doesn’t talk about beauty or looks—he’s more about feelings. But he doesn’t get it until the end of the show,” Ms. Lyons said. “It’s really about people who have poor communication skills. She hints around and he’s dense. I think his heart is in a good place, but it’s too late and they’ve missed their opportunity.

“The last monologue is heartbreaking and a big revelation,” she added. “It moved me so much.”

Ms. Lyons explained that much of the work during the rehearsal process for the actors centered on figuring out each character’s motivations and what is—and is not—being said or understood throughout the play. Despite the characters’ often rough edges, Ms. Lyons feels the actors have managed to find redeemable qualities in the people they portray on stage.

“I think they have found the good in these characters. While LaBute likes to push the bad, the cast is finding the good,” Ms. Lyons said. “We talk about character development a lot. That’s key for me, it’s what moves the show forward and it makes it interesting and real.”

The play also offers insight into how men and women behave when socializing among their peers—exploring how even nice guys like Greg can sometimes get swept up in “locker room” antics among their brethren.

“Kent is a misogynistic, macho jerk,” Ms. Lyons explained. “He rides Greg all the time, he thinks he’s the alpha male, and Greg puts up with it. He goes along with Kent as long as he’s not too crazy, but finally stands up to him.”

As a director, one challenge for Ms. Lyons lies in the text and the way in which it is to be delivered. Filled with dangling lines, half-finished sentences and frequent interruptions, there are often two conversations at once that the actors must manage.

“This is a very complicated show,” Ms. Lyons said. “When actors come into auditions, they feel they have to act—and I want to knock that out of them. I tell them to just be this person, don’t act. It’s like you’re in a living room watching this fight go on and thinking, yeah, that’s how my parents fight.”

But the struggle is real and, it seems, eternal when it comes to deciphering the way in which men and women communicate … or in this case, don’t.

“Then you get into the #MeToo movement and how men treat women,” Ms. Lyons said. “For me, this does have a great message, but it’s also entertainment. Any theatrical production can be assigned to current culture but I let the piece speak for itself. I’m not going to push the agenda.”

The Center Stage production of Neil LaBute’s “Reasons to Be Pretty” opens Friday, January 11 and runs through January 27 at the Southampton Cultural Center, 25 Pond Lane, Southampton. Shows are Thursdays to Saturdays at 7 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets are $25 (students $12) with a dinner and theater package offered at The Plaza Cafe (61 Hill Street, Southampton, 631-283-9323) or Claude’s at the Southampton Inn (91 Hill Street, Southampton, 631-283-1166). A three-course meal, tax, gratuity and a ticket to the show is $69. Also available is a $45 brunch and theater package ($32 for students) on Sundays at Fellingham’s (17 Cameron Street, Southampton, 631-283-9417). Purchase tickets and packages at scc-arts.org.

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