Encore Michigan

Communication rifts a la Ringwald

Review October 13, 2013 Encore Staff

By Carolyn Hayes

Verbal communication is supposed to set the human race apart from lesser species, but in practice, it can cause as many problems as it solves. Words said and unsaid diverge into messages sent and different messages received, and somewhere in the space between lies playwright Neil LaBute’s “reasons to be pretty.” In the Southeast Michigan premiere production at The Ringwald Theatre, director Joe Bailey lays bare the consequences of being heard and the separate conundrum of wanting to be understood.

The play’s opening beats find Greg (Joel Mitchell) in mid-row with girlfriend Steph (Dyan Bailey), in the apartment they share. Their circuitous and theoretical shouting match was triggered by a he-said, she-overheard-and-tattled scenario: Essentially, one offhand comment between bros is threatening to dismantle the entire relationship. Hanging in the balance is the difference between Greg’s arguments about context and Steph’s insistence that the words themselves are more important than he will concede. It’s this pitfall of communication, our impetus to seize on one thing said and saddle it with tremendous meaning, that informs the central theme of the show. Once the words are spoken, how important is the interpretation compared with the intent – and whose place is it to judge?

That Greg is adrift in a fixed, narrow world of acceptable actions and gestures carries through to his interactions with confident alpha Kent (Bryan Lark), his longtime friend and work mate, and grudge champion Carly (Christa Coulter), who is both Kent’s wife and Steph’s best friend. Under the guise of friendship and support, the two delight in schooling Greg about the nature of things and mocking him when he fails to abide by some arbitrary code.

Bailey’s direction wisely capitalizes on this otherness, cementing the characters in Greg’s orbit as being artificial and complicit in societal cues and hidden meanings, instead of expressing themselves honestly and directly, as he does. The approach works in concert with a script this florid with detail, yet obsessed with its own semantics, keeping meaningful connections intentionally at bay while dissecting every verbal and behavioral action. On the other side of the divide, Mitchell’s Greg excels in earnest frustration, pleading for emotional validation, but instead setting off trip wires as he crosses lines he can’t even see coming.

The production design similarly reinforces the human tendency to read into things, combining symbols and vanishing-point shapes (by scenic designers Dan Morrison and Alexander Trice) with ambient background noise (by sound designer Dyan Bailey) and allowing the viewer to connect the dots of various indoor and outdoor locales. This makes way for staging that plays largely fluid across the abstract space, but occasionally suffers when certain setups require actors to break the planes of the partitioned lighting scheme (by Brandy Joe Plambeck).

By no stretch of the imagination is “reasons” intended to be an empathetic watching experience, nor should it be. The theoretical bent to the work may confound viewers with its cruelty, but it simultaneously shields them from outright emotional battery and gives the characters further to develop.

Coulter and Lark, at first blush a picture-perfect couple of phonies, work hard for their second-act breakthroughs, each a devastating blend of vulnerability and defense tactics. Later scenes between Coulter and Mitchell in particular contain volumes, full of tiny modulations that drive the actors to uncharted depths.

Yet the play ultimately hinges on the broken relationship that instigates it, and Bailey and Mitchell together form the touchstone of the production. The play would deflate without the knowledge that these people had a stake in each other and were good together, and it’s no small achievement that this pair conveys that from moment one, with scant material evidence from the text. Their shared history, intimacy and affection is vitally apparent, even in the rearview, throughout her rarefied pops of acidly comic indictment and his stubborn inability to accede.

In “reasons,” director Bailey and company have created a heightened world in which attractiveness is cultivated, like a personal brand, and candor is perceived as unacceptably ugly. Yet however off-kilter and rancorous the foundation, this production confidently explores the cracks therein, raising fascinating questions about what we tell each other, how we say it, and what we take away in turn. True to form, how far removed we really are from this synthetic social fabric is left for the viewer to conclude.