STEPH: No, you’re f — ed, that’s what’s f — ed here; Mister, you are ... you are f — ed. Big time.”
And he is, he really is.
GREG: This is just stupid, so I’m not gonna ...
STEPH: Don’t do it! Do not walk out of here when we’re fighting or I swear to God I’ll ... I will murder your fish when you’re gone.”
"It certainly comes out swinging," LaBute, 49, said in a recent phone interview from Washington state, where he was visiting his mother in the hospital. "These people were at a crossroads, at a tinderbox. Something pressed a button."
And how. The play begins with twentysomethings Greg and Steph enmeshed in this hellish, blisteringly profane, scatologically nasty, avert-your-eyes and cover-your-ears fight, the offending comment having been made to Steph’s friend Carly prior to the play’s beginning. They quickly descend into the hell of a disintegrating relationship for, really, no good reason.
The righteous indignation she feels from Greg’s description of her face as something less than totally hot is one she simply won’t let go. LaBute, who has been criticized for misogynist and/or misanthropic tendencies, as in the film In the Company of Men, is not trying to make you like his characters, especially the women.
"I’m looking for the real highs and lows to tell a story," he says. "It just flows. You start writing away, sometimes you do get carried away — ‘Where did that come from?’ I don’t want to be afraid of certain subjects. There’s much more to it than simple sort of shock. I want to feel like the characters have that feeling."
Reasons is the third of an unofficial trilogy of LaBute plays (the others are The Shape of Things and Fat Pig) that meditate in part on how society deals with questions of attractiveness and physical beauty, or lack thereof. The Greg/Steph dispute allows Greg to begin distancing himself from the destructive habits of conflict that plague the three other characters. It’s been called LaBute’s first "coming of age" play, in which his characters show some growth and are somewhat easier to empathize with (maybe).
Perhaps, in true twentysomething fashion, the ultimate symbol of bromance betrayal and entry into adulthood for Greg comes when he walks away from a softball game, leaving his former buddy Kent (husband of Carly) with only eight players. Whoa! Kent is dumbfounded, but Greg, wrestling with bigger issues of betrayal, loyalty, honesty and maturing, has moved on.
In LaBute’s original script, each of the four characters gives a monologue dealing with the element of beauty. But when reasons moved to Broadway, the monologues were cut, resulting in a play more about the grittiness of relationships, the pitfalls of honesty and dishonesty, than another exploration of how society processes physical appearance. (Although the extended eyeball-scratching takedown of Greg by Steph at a mall, in which she details all his physical flaws down to the most minute detail, to prove a point, remains. "Your toes are, they’re like, almost like fingers, and you bite your own toenails — I know you do, I’ve seen you — and that goes down as the most disgusting fact I know.")
LaBute says the characters, and their language, come more from his imagination than from people he has known, or overheard.
"I tend not to be very autobiographical," he says. "I’ve seen all kinds of people and relationships. I had a father that was more volatile as a person. The story itself came from an interest in writing about relationships. I started asking men and women, how would your relationship survive if you found out your partner didn’t think of you as the most attractive thing around? A lot of women said that would be hard on their relationship. A lot of guys said ‘as long as she likes me.’?"
Sara Garonzik, the producing artistic director of the Philadelphia Theatre Company, said she thought after seeing the play that "there was a real rooting interest for the central character Greg and for that couple."
"I really cared," she said. "I was pulled into them, their personal searches, their struggles with each other. I cared whether this relationship between Greg and Steph would work out. At the center of the play is Greg, it’s his journey, becoming an unfinished boy who’s searching to become a young man who has come into his own."
She said the play should be a draw for people in their 20s and for fans of LaBute’s films, but she said it also is for the older audience that tends to predominate at Philadelphia Theatre Company shows. She said she attended an out-of-town matinee performance whose audience skewed older and "they were totally locked into the action."
The opening scene is a shocker, she acknowledged, but she said it is riveting and darkly comic theater.
"The whole structure of that fight is sort of a masterpiece," she said. "The ups and downs of a passionate fight, so many phases, tears and anger, regression, peace, outbreaks. There’s plenty of humor in it. It’s almost like an aria.
“There’s this self-recognition," she added, perhaps bravely. "You go, ‘Oh my God.’ I felt that a lot, believe me, and I’m not 28. I think the humor’s in the honesty. People being mean, these are people searching for something. There’s humanity and humor to it."
She compared LaBute’s use of language to David Mamet’s and said his profanity and vulgarity have "impact and meaning." "He’s a master of language," she said. "Words are very, very important to him."
The actors — Paul Felder, James McMenamin, Genevieve Perrier and Elizabeth Stanley — "pick up the script and see multidimensional moments. It’s an actor’s dream. I think they’re grand passions, operatic-like."
Director Maria Mileaf said the characters "feel very much like people I went to high school with."
"The characters are kind of contemporary," she said. "It’s about a kind of violence in relationships and toward oneself. You get provoked to some real truth about yourself, even if it’s not the question you’re asking."
Rehearsals, she said, are "very joyful. The familiarity of who [the characters] are in the world — I kind of love those scenes. We’re just excavating the writing, creating crises for the characters. It’s a real actors’ piece, how to reveal everything that’s there. We keep on unearthing more clues. There’s emotional clarity and honesty there. It’s really well observed about how people are in the world."
LaBute says he views his plays as snapshots in time in the life of his characters, handing the audience these stories, "and they get to play with them." He’s not entirely sure where the characters will end up.
"It felt like this was about a guy who was actually growing up," LaBute said. "This was a guy who ultimately said, ‘I like this person so much, I wanted to let them go.’ That’s as much as I know about these people. I don’t have to face next week’s episode."
Ah, if only that were true of Greg and Steph.
Contact Amy Rosenberg at 215-854-2681, email@example.com or @amysrosenberg on Twitter.
Theater reasons to be pretty Philadelphia Theatre Company through June 24 at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Broad and Lombard Streets. Information: 215-985-0420, http://philadelphiatheatrecompany.org