by SOPHIE KERMAN
Whether you want to spend two hours at the Walking Shadow Theatre Company‘s production of reasons to be pretty depends entirely on the company you keep. As one would expect from a Neil LaBute play, reasons is centered on four unpleasant people and the unpleasant things they do to one another. If that sounds like a fun or interesting night at the theater, then this well-done performance will be right up your alley. If you work in the mental health profession, you may want to stay home and wait until Monday to go back to work.
The central couple in question is Steph (a grating Anna Sundberg, though the character is so aggressive that it may be wrong to blame the actress) and her soon-to-be ex-boyfriend Greg (Joseph Bombard), who is positioned as the sympathetic and sensitive everyman. Added to the mix are Greg’s long-time friend Kent (Andrew Sass), whose extreme chauvinism quickly goes from being somewhat goofy to deeply offensive, and his security guard wife Carly (Rachel Finch), who follows the opposite trajectory and gradually becomes more likeable as the play wears on. As the play opens, Steph is raging at Greg about a casual comment he made about her appearance, and the ensuing destruction – both to their relationship and to the other relationships around them – provides the momentum for the rest of the action.
The play’s plot may already make it clear that LaBute does not leave the audience free to come to its own conclusions about the characters. The structure of the play, down to the proportion of (in most cases, copious) swearing that comes out of each character’s mouth, ensures that we form a particular judgment of the situation. Many feminists may also be frustrated by the fact that this judgment is skewed towards an unflattering and objectifying view of women.
That said, director Amy Rummenie elicits strong performances from all four actors, ensuring that our judgments are at least founded on bad people, not bad acting. Though Bombard’s Greg sometimes fades into the background, his scenes with Kent and Carly are particularly raw and unexpected. Sass could not have produced a more recognizable interpretation of Kent as the jerk who you really, really don’t want to think is funny, and Finch’s Carly becomes more and more nuanced as she escapes from Greg’s demonization of her. (However, some unfortunate blocking choices mean that viewers on the right side of the audience will rarely ever see her face.) The weakest link was Sundberg – although well-cast as the brash but insecure Steph, she suffers from a lack of spontaneity, with line readings either spewing from an inexhaustible fountain of anger or emerging slowly from calculated consideration.
The entire production, not only the actors, does a lot with a little. Steve Kath‘s set and Karin Olson‘s lighting are cleverly done, creating new moods with relatively few changes. (The most involved scene changes are done with the help of a cart and some in-character clowning by Sass.) The question is not whether the Walking Shadow has done a good job with this play (it undoubtedly has) but whether you find on-stage cruelty provocative or emotionally fatiguing. Either way, if you bring a date, the hope is that you do not recognize yourselves on stage – or else you may find yourself (as one character has done) going home and flushing your date’s goldfish down the toilet.