NEW YORK - Nice guys finish last. Fat girls finish laster. Nice fat guys finish lastest. So we learn from the Neil LaBute trilogy, starting with
The Shape of Things
, continuing with
, and concluding with this MCC Theatre world premiere of
reasons to be pretty
. Amusing, insightful, and slimy - the LaBute usual - this newest installment charting the desperate and vile misunderstandings between the sexes is also disappointing, despite some terrific acting.
The setup: Two couples work in a warehouse. Before Act 1 begins, Greg (Thomas Sadoski) apparently has said something disparaging about his girlfriend's face. Steph (Alison Pill) confronts him in a wild, violent fight, beginning the play at top decibel. He threatens to call the cops. She threatens to murder his fish. Later she will publicly read a catalogue of his physical flaws - hair to toes - aloud in the food court at the mall. Greg, who reads 19th-century classics (Poe, Hawthorne, etc.) meekly, lovingly absorbs her abuse just as he tolerates his pal Kent's (Pablo Schreiber) bullying.
Every relationship in the play will hinge on appearance: Kent's wife, Carly (Piper Perabo), tells us about the burden of being pretty - guys follow her around supermarkets, often with their kid in the cart - while her husband philanders with a new woman whose blue/green eyes drive him crazy. Kent - self-consciously hunky and sexy - mocks Greg's taste in women. Eventually the two guys fight like boys in a schoolyard; it's more a temper tantrum than a brawl.
Betrayals (at the level of tattling, although with enormous adult consequences) pile up, as it becomes clear that these four people are the blue-collar versions of the characters who populate LaBute's earlier plays and movies (The Company of Men, Nurse Betty). In The Shape of Things, a graduate student uses her unwitting lover as her thesis project, reshaping him as human sculpture. In Fat Pig, a dot-commer and a fat woman fall in love, but he caves under his coworkers' mockery and dumps her. In The Mercy Seat, a married man who has spent the morning of 9/11 at his lover's apartment instead of his World Trade Center office stares at his endlessly ringing cell phone as his wife keeps calling. As Kent says, "That's what most guys do - ride that wave to shore."
But unlike those scripts, reasons to be pretty ends with a puerile monologue: Greg explains that "beauty is of no consequence but we chase it anyway," providing cliche magazine and movie examples. He tells us he learned in an art-history course that "beauty is subjective"; his big discovery is "life is short." And his advice: "Be nice."
In the program's "Note from the Playwright," LaBute wishes he were "a braver person." He has reliably been a brave and shocking playwright, but reasons to be pretty seems to lack theatrical courage.
Through July 13 at Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St., New York. Tickets $59. Information: 212-279-4200 www.ticketcentral.com.