Rocky Road

BY CHRISTOPHER BYRNE | It's a very good thing that Neil LaBute's “reasons to be pretty” has scheduled a Broadway transfer because this play is, quite simply, one of the best new works in New York right now. LaBute, who has chronicled the testosterone-charged, maladaptive, and downright hostile behavior of men in relationship to women, has written a beautifully mature and complex play that kept me on the edge of my seat and my heart racing.

It is the story of the dissolution of the four-year relationship of Greg, a late-20s factory worker who spends the third shift carting frozen foods in a nondescript plant, and his girlfriend Steph, a hairdresser. As the lights go up, the two are locked in a battle royal because Carly, a friend of Steph's and Greg's co-worker, reported to her that she overheard him tell her husband Kent, also a worker at the plant, that Steph was “ugly.” Greg's protestations that what he said was that Steph was “regular,” meaning it as a compliment in comparison with a girl at the plant who is obviously over-sexed don't hold any water with Steph, who walks out.

Troubles abound in “reasons to be pretty” and “The Rarest of Birds”.

We're off into familiar LaBute territory, where communication between the sexes is an inescapable minefield.

Or are we? In fact, the playwright stakes out new ground. Steph is not victimized by Greg but by her own perceptions of who she should be and neuroses about her appearance. She is a cruel and angry woman, deaf to any of Greg's attempts to apologize and heal. Steph is LaBute's first female bad guy, and the juxtaposition of her blind and selfish behavior with Greg's struggle to grow up and engage in an adult relationship is striking. The relationship between Carly and Kent is more traditional LaBute, with a selfish and amoral man serving his own needs and a woman who, for a time, puts up with it.

For all the emotional and physical violence that ensues, what sustains the piece is the undercurrent of tension that comes not from the overt violence but from Greg's struggle to change his worldview and his behavior and perhaps find a different, more workable solution for his life. As he grows in self-knowledge it's not that he becomes happier but that he has a greater understanding, an ability to cope that remains alien to the rest of the characters. It's hopeful and grim at the same time and takes on a level of poetry that is bittersweet and very real.

Terry Kinney's fearless direction pulls out all the stops, never allowing the violence to overwhelm the subtleties of the piece and the subtext. The performances are uniformly exceptional. Piper Perabo is exceptional as Carly, a woman always on the brink of a breakdown who masks that with violence and bravado. The gifted Alison Pill does a magnificent job as Steph, demonstrating a range that could work for “Peg O' My Heart”… or “Medea.” Pablo Schreiber shows a hitherto unseen part of his personality as the hyper-masculine and brutish Kent.

At the center of the play, though, is the heartbreaking and accomplished performance of Thomas Sadoski as Greg. There isn't a moment he hasn't fully explored, and the richness of a character struggling to grow is manifest. His awkwardness at trying to become someone new and alien to all his experience is beautifully fine-tuned and exacting in detail.

The production downtown has closed, but mark your calendar for February and don't miss the exceptional piece.

Like many gay men in the 1940s and '50s, Montgomery Clift was tormented by his sexuality. He was also tormented, it seems, by Melpomene, the muse of tragedy. He was a groundbreaking actor, driven to perfect his craft at the expense of his life. At least, that's how he's portrayed in the new one-man play “The Rarest of Birds.” Conceived and written by John Lisbon Wood, the piece, just closed at the Wings Theatre, is a biography of Clift, his acting, his tragedies, and ultimately his death at 45 from complications related to his multiple addictions.

The play reminds one of TV shows like “A True Hollywood Story,” that chronicle the dissolution of stars and play into the audience's kind of morbid, voyeuristic fascination with just this topic. The idea that someone who had looks, talent, and celebrity could be so unremittingly fucked up has been the fodder of the tabloids forever. Certainly that applies here and as such, the show is never boring.

Yet it never really takes flight, either. The rote telling of the events of Clift's life on his tortured downward spiral ultimately fails to engage. Moreover, it's the same essential story again and again – misunderstood genius does something self destructive – until his body and spirit finally surrender.

That's unfortunate because Wood, in his role as writer, director, and producer, could probably have made more of this and generated a lot more sympathy for Clift and his struggles. There is a manic sameness about each of the scenes, and Wood has Clift flinging himself about the stage non-stop – falling, crawling, staggering – too often coming across as unmotivated and soon wearing thin.

Nonetheless, Omar Prince as Clift is very impressive. He has a remarkable presence and is completely tireless as he hurtles through the role. Still, he is most moving when he is able to simply stand still and be the character. Wood should have trusted him more.

In a world where celebrities self-immolate on a practically daily basis, there is nothing new here, but I was intrigued by how Clift approached roles and how he blazed a trail for the actors who followed. But the play, more than anything else, motivated me to add Clift's films in my Netflix queue.