LaBute's prose full-bodied

The American playwright Neil LaBute - 6ft 2in, 280 pounds, with a bush of curly hair and oversized spectacles - is all about looking good. He's no male model, but he recently completed a thematic trilogy of plays that dissect America's obsession with surface and beauty, the most recent of which, Reasons to Be Pretty, marks the accomplished 46-year-old provocateur's Broadway debut. In Reasons to Be Pretty, which premiered last week at the Lyceum Theatre, LaBute deals in emotional and intellectual warfare, and his current drama begins in medias res. Somewhere in "the outlying suburbs" of a Midwestern city, a young woman named Steph (Marin Ireland) is shouting at her soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend Greg (Thomas Sadoski). Packed with witty asides and cultural references, their battle feels more comically distorted than naturalistic, and barely registers until we learn the nature of Greg's slight. In a seemingly private conversation with a friend, he referred to Steph as having a "regular" face.

Regular means average means perfectly adequate: what's the problem? Does Greg's poorly measured statement merit this barrage of insults from his beloved? All things being equal, exceptional beauty is supposed to be the exception, not the norm. Moreover, Greg is a shlubby, overfed pushover who works a warehouse job for low pay, and gets regularly kicked around by his macho buddy Kent (Steven Pasquale). Worse, perhaps, he harbours intellectual pretensions, toting Melville, Hawthorne, and Poe with him on various lunch breaks. He should be thanking his lucky stars for sending a girl like Steph in his direction. In one contrived but stinging scene, she reads aloud from a handwritten list of Greg's shortcomings in a crowded mall food court.

LaBute has reworked the acidic battle of the sexes formula so often - see films like In the Company of Men and The Shape of Things for his patented brand of psychological cruelty - that Reasons to Be Pretty initially registers as fairly rote, but later on he pulls a neat trick. Act Two justifies LaBute's assertion that this is his first coming-of-age play, tracking Greg's sentimental education on the road from selfish coward to responsible adult. LaBute's males used to flout their misogynistic nastiness as a point of pride, but Greg's resignation is made of tougher stuff. "He will find a way to damage you, and that's a fact," he tells his ex, when he catches her out on a first date. Newly self-aware, Greg intends his categorical statement as a warning, not a threat.

One-sentence plot descriptions of the two earlier LaBute beauty plays will probably sound cheaply moralistic. In The Shape of Things, a nerdy guy smitten by his new girlfriend's good looks allows her to influence his every decision, and then learns that he's been used as a thesis project. In Fat Pig, a young man falls for an overweight girl, but is soon overwhelmed by the judgment and disapproval of his male friends. These too-clever narrative constructs read as booby-traps in search of intellectual bait.

But Reasons to Be Pretty - a surprisingly mature dark comedy if not a uniformly excellent one - is not quite a commentary on beauty or bodies or gender roles. Its uniquely theatrical subject is the nature of verbal jousting; LaBute is exploring the ways we use language as a shield. If human beauty is just a temporarily effective way to stave off insecurity, then talking about beauty is an ersatz form of communication. To LaBute, the only reason to be pretty is to escape vulnerability. To be vain is not to be "self-conscious". The mirror won't tell you anything you don't already know.

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