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Plenty of Reasons to See Phoenix's Latest – by Erin Anderson

“I think she looks better with the wig.”

This innocuous comment from an audience member during intermission seemed incredibly apropos in the midst of Reasons To Be Pretty, a play about how we value and judge beauty.

It’s this kind of comment – an offhanded verdict on someone’s appearance – that launches the main plotline of Neil LaBute’s contemporary play.

When Steph (Reese Nielsen) hears her boyfriend Greg (Robin Gadsby) made a less-than-flattering remark about her appearance, she storms out of their relationship while he seems dumbstruck by the whole affair. Meanwhile, his coworker Kent (Alex Frankson) begins to suffer from a wandering eye, despite continued love from his a beautiful wife Carly (Alberta Holden).

As coworkers and friends – and occasionally enemies – these four characters struggle to understand each other. The action of the play comes almost entirely from conversations, commonplace but also compelling interactions. In between their exchanges, each character gets a monologue in which they talk about their own view of beauty and its impact on them.

As the plot is spread over the course of several months, each character shows some evolution – some more than others. Nielsen gives an affecting, sharp performance as Steph, balancing intense emotion with intelligent convictions. As her literate but somehow obtuse boyfriend, Gadsby gives a genuine turn as a clueless guy struggling to understand the sudden implosion of his relationship.

The role of the gorgeous Carly could be obnoxious in the wrong hands, but Holden does great work in her monologue on the unnerving, alienating nature of beauty and brings a light playfulness to the role even when Carly is on the warpath. As the crude and blunt Kent – a role similar to his last one on the Phoenix stage – Frankson brings an energy, even when he’s idling in the breakroom, and impressively delivers a seamless speech while jumping rope.

Despite being moored in insecurity and infidelity, the overall effect is strangely heartwarming and comforting.

The sets are incredibly detailed and the play opens on a bedroom filled with objects that reflect our image-obsessed society – television and computer screens, a poster of a beautiful woman and disconcerting mirrors that reflect the audience’s faces. The warehouse crew acts as stagehands, a clever and seamless way of melding the set switches into the action.

The costumes are subtle yet instructive; the ever-reading Greg wears a series of shirts based on classic books and Steph dons gorgeous dresses after being made to feel less than beautiful. The multimedia effects – projecting warehouse scenes on the walls to set the stage and showing images of Lady Gaga and Adele in between scenes – are effective without overpowering. This detail-oriented approach – quotes from the play are even painted on the bathroom mirrors in the building – extends across the production.

Under the direction of Christine Willes (see our interview with her HERE) each actor delivers an honest and lifelike portrayal of average people who manage to capture something very profound. The realism and honesty in the script is incorporated on stage through a natural conversational style, where sometimes people speak too quickly or quietly.

All of the elements of theatre come together exceptionally well in this production, so much so that it’s a shame it has such a short run. A strong show – the best I’ve seen from Phoenix yet – and a thought-provoking, empowering one at that.

Erin Anderson

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