Shockmeister Neil LaBute's latest MCC Theater production begins with a confrontation that practically parodies similar scenes in his older shows. Sad sack Greg (Thomas Sadoski), who works in the stockroom of a supermarket, is getting the business from his girlfriend, Steph (Alison Pill). After a barrage of colorful expletives, delivered at room-shaking volume, it emerges that Steph's beef is that she has heard through the grapevine that Greg considers her friend, security guard Carly (Piper Perabo), beautiful and she merely regular. With that potty mouth and fearsome temper Steph is I think lucky to get that. But such is the shaky foundation on which the next two hours and fifteen minutes, at least two hours of which is shouted, is Reasons to be Pretty built.
The show concludes a trilogy on beauty, which began with the intriguing if impossibly plotted The Shape of Things and continued with Fat Pig-by that time, LaBute's bludgeoning modus operandi was awfully familiar to me, from stage and screen, and I did not feed at its trough. But for the playwright beauty is skin-deep (Atlantic Stage Two's Body Awareness, opening Wednesday, takes more thoughtful, tactful measure of the subject) under Steph's surface complaint roils the discontent of America's squeezed working class. LaBute, who expresses his sympathy in his author's note, and has tinged this play with autobiography, is however unable to shift from hot-under-the-collar to blue collar. Greg is another of his garden-variety schlubs and patsies, and Steph another of his sentimentalized bitches. Carly, flatly played by Coyote Ugly film star Perabo, is a cipher, and a mystery: in her uniform, with her blond hair severely shorn, she is more of a fetish object than beautiful. The quartet is completed by Carly's husband, Kent, who is the most exhausted of the playwright's characters, the go-getting alpha male and confidant of the underdog protagonist who is unmasked as a fraud and a misogynist. Pablo Schreiber, a tall actor, shrinks into the role.
Director Terry Kinney was hired to bring a little of his Steppenwolf grit to the production. That he does: David Gallo's simple set is bordered by wire shelving, laden with plus-sized cereal boxes and cleaning products, that is one part Costco and one part Stalag 17, and an inevitable bloody fight scene is well-choreographed by Manny Siverio. He does less well with the performers, who don't, or can't, find much that's new or illuminating in their roles. Pill, an excitingly unpredictable actress in Blackbird and Mauritius, wears out her welcome after that first scene. The audience cringes whenever she shows up, confusing her transition to less volcanic emotions.
An additional problem is having the characters break from the action to indulge in monologues that spell out what's already obvious in the preceding scenes. In the last, we are urged to be nice to each other. To which I say, to LaBute: You first, creep.