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Review: Reasons To Be Pretty

What are your reasons to be pretty? Is it because your boyfriend just referred to your face as regular, and you found out? Is it to catch the eye of the new busty blond at work? Do you dress to impress a cheating spouse or a first date or even dress down to make them think you don’t care? Whatever the reason, chances are Neil LaBute’s Reasons to be Pretty considers it all. The Phoenix Theatre, in Indianapolis downtown, presents the third installment of LaBute’s trilogy on the American obsession with beauty, Reasons to be Pretty, now through August 1. This working class coming of age tale has men and women wielding words as weapons against each other. On an impressively sleek set, LaBute’s drama unfolds with a spot on performance from Ryan Artzberger (who just came off of the same show at the prestigious Studio Theatre in Washington D.C.) in the central role. Yet, the show fails to live up to the high standards previously set by director Bryan Fonseca, who trades in his delicate and detail oriented hand to paint in much broader strokes. Catch the show Thursday through Sunday in the Indianapolis theatre district downtown, Mass Ave.

The Phoenix Theatre nabbed Indianapolis actor, Ryan Artzberger, hot off of a twice extended run of Reasons To Be Pretty at Washington D.C.’s Studio Theatre, to make his Phoenix debut replaying the role to Indianapolis people. Artzberger’s performances at the Studio Theatre garnered him countless positive reviews and critical accolade as he turned the nation’s capitol on its ear in LaBute’s most powerful drama yet. The Phoenix Theatre dropped their catch onto their main stage, decked out with an expansive and polished scenic design, perfect for creating multiple locations throughout LaBute’s script.

Rotating red panels revealed apartment bedrooms, warehouse break rooms, restaurant lobbies, mall food courts and even the infield of a baseball diamond. With relatively effective scene changes, designer James Gross created an on stage home for Artzberger that aligns very closely with the height of the professional theatre world, from which Artzberger just returned. With high expectations that Phoenix would outdo itself one last time this season, the sold out house (for the second night in a row, I’m told) buzzed with excitement in the seconds leading up to the initial fade of the house lights.

Neil LaBute’s Reasons To Be Pretty centers on one protracted youth’s attempts to do the right thing in a world of constant wrong turns on his behalf. In a now infamous opening scene, LaBute drops his audiences in the middle of a heated and personal argument between two lovers, Greg (Ryan Artzberger) and Steph (Angela Plank). As Plank jumps around stage, red faced and screaming practically every profane word made taboo, it’s clear to see LaBute’s linguistic arsenal, which has made this play notorious. Playing opposite Artzberger, Plank holds her own. However, any actor would struggle to begin a two hour journey on stage at such an extreme, and her labor is obvious as she scrambles to match Artzberger’s control on stage. As the fiery Steph, Plank truly hits her stride as she shares a list of Greg’s flaws with the crowd of a mall food court midway through the first act. Controlling the scene from entrance to exit, Plank is captivating, dangerous and even funny with her nose buried in a crumpled piece of lined notebook paper. And once again, LaBute’s “words as daggers” motif continues to build.

LaBute’s writing is interesting not only for his handle on language, which tends toward the realistic and almost rustic as he focuses on his working class characters, but also for his handle on the differences in communication between men and women. Faced with a bully of a best friend in Kent, manipulative language is used against Greg on all fronts. Shane Chuvalas plays against type as the macho meat head Kent, compared to recent Phoenix roles in The Most Damaging Wound and Yankee Tavern, yet the menacing muscle bound man-child character suits him like a tailor made glove. Settling into this villainous role, Chuvalas performs with incredible freedom. As he bullies Greg out of even the simplest of pleasures like an after meal Power Bar, Chuvalas spreads his wings as the epitome of a man who only talks and never listens.

As Kent’s wife Carley, Mariana Fernandez bears the brunt of her meat head husband’s skewed version of reality. Fernandez pulls off sweet, unassuming and total victimization by the men with ease and believability. In a cruel turn of events, her relationship with hubby Kent stands as a mirror reflecting failure on all counts for Greg. Yet as she begins to suspect her husband’s infidelity, Fernandez’s offer of redemption to Greg is highly personal and heartbreaking.

As a character who faces constant and total failure, Artzberger is nothing less than polished, giving a spot on performance with all the right choices and perfect timing  done almost by rote. After performing the role to wild success in Washington D.C.,  it can be hard to enter into a new show at a new theater with new scene partners and high expectations from this Indianapolis performing arts community. Yet, Artzberger shines as a total professional, taking his audience on a complete journey from beginning to end. With his finger on the play’s trigger, he carefully controls the catharsis that inevitably comes for his character at the end of show, giving it to us as if it were a gift made right before our eyes.

However, despite relatively strong performances from all four actors, one question kept tinkering in the back of my mind throughout the show: “I wonder how this part was done at the Studio Theatre?” With even dramaturgical notes ripped from the Studio Theatre’s program, its clear the Phoenix Theatre is hedging its bets on attracting an audience based on Artzberger’s buzz. Yet, it seems director Bryan Fonseca relies on this buzz for more than just marketing. In a play where words have been repeatedly compared to swords by critics across the country, I felt not every cutting line landed like it should, as if four actors were bandying blunted blades about.

To make these lines really cut, actors must enter into the process together. Regardless of one fourth of the production’s previous experience in their role, the Phoenix Theatre’s production is a totally different animal. After enjoying a solid year of subtle and intelligent directorial choices from Artistic Director and resident director Bryan Fonseca, it felt as if he was relying on Artzberger’s strong handle on the role to guide the other actors through the show.

In each scene, the power and beauty of LaBute’s writing rang clear, yet the important minor and personal connections between each character that make a production unique to its location, that create an intricate web, a rich fabric of performance were largely absent. My suspicions: the process failed to jump the hurdle of Artzberger starting from scratch in a new and totally different production. Though his choices were always spot on for the script, they did not necessarily line up with the choices of the other actors. I place the blame on the director, the outside eye responsible for cohesiveness, for this mistake.

A little disappointed by the Phoenix Theatre’s final showing, I must also admit this theatre has spoiled me with intelligent and sharp productions all season long. My expectations were, and still are, high for this Indianapolis theatre, regardless if their latest production is just a “little off.” Besides that, Reasons to be Pretty by Neil LaBute is an extremely relevant, important and affective piece of theatre. LaBute’s lesson: growing up is best done in baby steps. Greg’s struggle to be good, to be adult, is something we all can relate to. Don’t miss your chance to see LaBute’s masterwork on stage at the Phoenix Theatre now through August 1.

Tickets to this Indianapolis art event are $15.00 on Thursday, Sunday and for Indianapolis kids twenty four and under, $20.00 on Friday and Saturday. Show times are 7:00 pm on Thursday, 8:00 pm on Friday and Saturday and 2:00 pm on Sunday. Enjoy the downtown Indianapolis cultural district, Mass Ave, before and after the show. Treat yourself to dinner and drinks at any of these Indianapolis restaurants or Indianapolis bars.

Located in an Indianapolis theatre district, the Phoenix Theatre is close to a handful of premiere Indianapolis performing arts venues like the Theatre on the Square, the IndyFringe Building and the Old National Center (formerly Murat Theatre). Stay tuned to Indianapolis News, Events and Information for more fun things to do in Indianapolis. We cover Indianapolis events to Indianapolis attractions and everything in between. Get out in Indy and find some fun! Make the Circle City your playground!

Reasons to be Pretty
Now through August 1, 2010

The Phoenix Theatre
749 North Park Avenue
Indianapolis, IN 46202
317.635.PLAY