Theater review: 'Reasons to be Pretty'

In these trying economic times, when a lot of local troupes are scaling back, the introduction of a new company on the scene is practically its own cause for celebration.

Founded by co-artistic directors Grant McGowen and Bree Dawn Shannon, a couple of former Atlantans recently returned from New York, Pinch n’ Ouch Theatre takes its name from a Sanford Meisner acting exercise that emphasized the importance of “responding truthfully under imaginary circumstances.”

Given that, the group’s inaugural production seems perfectly logical indeed: Neil LaBute’s “Reasons to be Pretty,” a biting commentary on friendship and romance; sexual attitudes and body-image issues; secrets and lies and moments of truth.

Directed by Sean Gallagher, the four-character drama hinges on the ingratiating performance of Jacob York as Greg, a well-read warehouse worker. As the show opens, he’s embroiled in a major row with his girlfriend Steph (Rachel Richards), amid allegations that he made disparaging remarks about her physical appearance to one of his friends and co-workers.

McGowen portrays the friend, Kent, a womanizing sexist pig, and Shannon plays his wife, Carly, who also works at the warehouse, and whose obligation to her friend Steph could be either well-intentioned or misinformed. The more privy Greg becomes to the details of Kent and Carly’s troubled marriage, the more likely it is that the proverbial tables will turn.

There’s an uncompromising quality about LaBute’s work that initially challenges the audience to take any side at all in the drama’s various disputes. None of the characters is especially likable at first glance, but at least three of them have the effect of growing on us.

We spend much of Act I wondering if Carly should just mind her own business, for example, but Shannon generates genuine sympathy for her predicament in Act II. York and Richards are equally resourceful. As the fighting subsides between Greg and Steph, and the fallout from their relationship gradually develops, these two actors make utterly palpable the sense of loss and regret.

For his part, McGowen doesn’t fare as well — although it’s mostly a flaw in the writing that Kent basically functions as a one-dimensional antagonist, whose comeuppance feels pat and inevitable. Another problem with LaBute’s play: It tips the balance by detailing the friendship between Greg and Kent, without giving the women a scene together.

In Gallagher’s staging of “Reasons to be Pretty,” the most glaring false note involves a scene in which Steph gives Greg a hard slap, and yet Richards holds back on really letting York have it. The absence of any literal pinch or ouch might have Meisner rolling in his grave.

Theater review

“Reasons to be Pretty”

Grade: B

Through June 27. 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays; 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 7 p.m. Sundays. $18-$28. Alliance Hertz Stage, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E. 404-733-5000. .

Bottom line: A respectable first impression.

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