“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all /Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” John Keats

I am going to declare up front that I know (socially) director James Beach and actor Andrew Henry. I have eaten pizza with James and admired his work for a long time – he has directed some of the most provocative new plays in Sydney’s Independent theatre scene and we have beautifully debated and been tangled up in conversations at great length in a mutual friends kitchen topics such as: the place of American accent on the Australian stage, politics of theatre, feminism. James Beach has my undying respect and admiration. Andrew Henry I have had coffee with, and have had charming conversations, he’s even offered his voice and mind to a reading of a first draft of new writer I am working with. Recently back from Steppanwolf, Andrew is a delightful and highly energetic artist whom I have also conversationally wrestled with about accents and new plays and the place of American writing on our independent stage. It is for Andrew that earlier this year I decided to bend my “only Australian plays” rule for 2012 – because his passion for LaBute and Reasons to be Pretty were so compelling.

Neil LaBute’s Reasons to be Pretty written in 2008, has leapt forth onto the Darlinghurst Theatre stage for its Australian premiere. This production has been well reviewed during its premiere seasons in The US and the UK – and many of the reviews have introduced it in many ways: and usually commenting on LaBute’s developing cannon and where the play fits in with his concerns of the heart/human interaction and sometimes commenting on America’s obsession with beauty.

The premise is simple – a man is caught passing an opinion about his girlfriend’s face being “regular” (as opposed to being “beautiful”) and not as “hot” as the new girl at work. Girlfriend finds out and leaves him.

The play hangs on truth. What happens when you tell the truth? Can you tell the truth and not hurt someone’s feelings? Will honesty forever destry relationships? How much do we need/want to be lied to by the people we know and love and trust?

Bertrand Russell said, “If we were all given by magic the power to read each other’s thoughts, I suppose the first effect would be to dissolve all friendships.”

And perhaps LaBute is showing us that.

So in honour of LaBute’ play, I am going to be completely honest about this production.

I was completely ready to be proven wrong – that this play was better than all the new work I have been reading in the last year. I was ready to be swept up by the poetry and intensity of the ideas. I was ready to embrace the “musicality” of the American accent that is so often argued, I was ready to suspend my new play politics and be converted. I was ready to be surprised by LaBute’s play.

I wasn’t. It was as I expected.

Lucky for LaBute he has a long string of plays preceeding this one, so that the reviews can hang on his over arching body of work. I can’t really think of many Australian playwrights who are afforded that quantity of production that even a fairly average piece of writing can be accepted onto the stage. I didn’t like the play: and not because the characters are all ugly and “not likeable” but because I don’t think I ever changed my opinion about them – they are largely characters sketched skin deep: emblematic and functional characters showing their agenda at every turn.

It seems that the majority of LaBute that is staged on Sydney’s independent stages is selected and championed by actors (not directors – although John Kachoyan’s offering pre-re-entering the Australian theatre scene was a LaBute’s “La Dispute” also at the Darlinghurst). I think one of the reasons why is that the scenes, individually, have a shape and an energy to them which is intense. Tight duets that rely on the actor being ready with their dialogue. LaButes plays also seem to have characters who are fast talking, big talkers (a distinctly “American” character trait it has been said) that is inherently fun and bold and exciting to channel. In my discussions about the pros and cons of American accents versus natural (or Australian) accents – even for plays written by Americans – the vernacular and the place name (even chocolate bar references) have been cited as reasons “for” the American accent. My personal taste is that I still think it is patronizing to audiences – just as Australia’s radio announcers of the 1950s spoke with a British accent for the sake of “clarity” – is equally as untrue. And this is my opinion and personal preference.

The content of the play is interesting – but in my opinion is mis-titled. It is not about beauty. not at all really. It’s about truth. A more representative title would be “Reasons to be Honest.” The play show different scenes in which friendships are fortified and compromised by lying and (in equal measure) telling the truth. The most interesting scene in the whole play is at the end when Steph (Julia Grace) and Greg (Andrew Henry), are having their final confrontation. When quietly, without heat, without knee jerk reaction they actually admit to each other what they wanted. Steph has arrived to let Greg know that she is engaged/if he wants to sweep her off her feet he should do it now and Greg responds with a statement admitting that he wasn’t really ready for that and liked her – but not that much. The interesting thing about this scene is that he might be honest here – or he might have finessed a lie in this moment to allow Steph to be free and clear of him for good. But it appears that Steph’s vanity is what ultimately sets her on the path of being free from Greg. The question for me here, is she now engaged to someone who does thinks she’s beautiful, or merely says she is – and what does she ultimately believe of herself.

The production itself is conservative, no new ground broken here. Scenes are jollied along by a juke-box of pop songs and Beach remains very truthful to the text: the mark of a director of great integrity. Design wise there isn’t much that can be done with the places LaBute has written in. So it is all about the performances, which on the whole are energetic and present though sometimes erring on the side of caricature. What I found missing from the performances was a smooth, sneakiness of subtextual strategy. The fights between Steph and Greg are pretty much one note, repeated and rapid fire… which gives little time to appreciate the “other side” of every argument, which is hurt, pain and fear. The arguments are therefore carried out as though these two have been dating for a month – not years – and as though they don’t know each other nor have compassion for each other – even at the tail end of a relationship there is usually some indication of mutual recognition of what they had/are losing.

But as Andrew said to me on opening night, that Australian plays are like arthouse Dendy films – and this LaBute is more in the realm of films like The Bourne Identity, a popular commercial play… what he’s saying is that this is entertainment. I don’t at all disagree with the need of diversity on stages – we need all types of work produced from all places, I personally don’t think there is enough new Australian work produced – and not enough new prodcutions of old Australian works either. And of course I don’t begrudge quality when it happens – and from whatever country it comes from. I just don’t think Reasons to be Pretty is one of “THE great plays.” But I can appreciate that in the context of a triptych, it is a valuable chapter.

Telling the truth in relationship IS terrifying. Telling the truth in a response to work by artists I like and admire and want to support is also utterly TERRIFYING.

There is a huge quantity of talent on stage at the Darlinghurst Theatre – all over it, in fact. And I can’t wait to see what Beach and Henry would do with an awesome, ready, worthy, brilliant Australian play.

I know that even if the three of us agree to disagree on the politics of new plays, Australian plays, American accents, Neil LaBute that there is enough respect there (from me) to tell them my opinion of their work: as scarey as it is for me. I have lots to lose – coffee and pizza dates for one, their friendship, potential collaborations. But I have written this because “Reasons to be Pretty” has shown me- it’s tough to tell the truth, it’s painful, frightening: but essential in the forging of meaningful, authentic and long lasting relationships.

Luckilly I don’t believe in ultimate truth nor do I believe I am an ultimate critical voice, nor that there is only opinion and perspective. I am just one person giving my view, and we can all rest safely in knowing that plenty of critics and reviewers have loved this production:
And it’s selling like hotcakes… so I urge you to get a ticket and see for yourself.