It's understood that a Neil LaBute play titled Reasons to Be Pretty will provide anything but. Over his two-decade-plus career, the playwright and former Spokanite, most widely known for In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors, has fixated on our baser aspects, particularly as they come to bear in ostensibly close or romantic relationships. His characters are insecure, petty, arrogant, naive, deceitful, vain, callous, self-deluding, ineffectual; these flaws are weapons with the power to wound, intentionally or indiscriminately.
And so it is here. Greg (Ryan Shore; recently in Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde at Civic) and Steph (Molly Tage; Never the Sinner) immediately take the stage in a profanity-laden lover's quarrel. It concerns a careless remark to his pal and co-worker Kent (Nich Witham; The Glass Menagerie), whose wife, Carly (Jennie Oliver), overheard and quickly relayed it to Steph. Greg's offense — unforgivable in both women's eyes — is to have said that Steph's face was "regular" compared to the new girl at the depot where three of them work.
Shore plays a schlubby, perpetually contrite Greg as a fine counterpoint to Witham's Kent, whose sculpted pecs and hair belie (or bespeak) a swaggering, egocentric driver of events to which Greg must react. As Steph, Tage's voice was slightly attenuated on opening night, reducing some of the force she needs to browbeat Greg, but her hurt and anger are still palpable. Oliver, a newcomer to this stage, negotiates the challenges of her role well as she transitions into a sympathetic figure.
Photos of the chic and glamorous are posted all over the ash-gray set of this production, taut and charged under Dawn Taylor Reinhardt's direction. Intended as a reminder of the metric of beauty at the back of the characters' minds, these photos aren't necessary, and they distract from more subtle visual cues embedded in props and costumes. Like the script's monologues or its books/covers motif, there's a risk of losing something vital when putting too fine a point on any one idea of the many that make this such a raw and captivating play.
Reasons to Be Pretty • Through Feb. 15: Thu-Sat, 7:30 pm; Sun, 2 pm • $19-$25 • The Modern Theater Spokane • 174 S. Howard • 455-PLAY • themoderntheater.org