Ever since that evening in 1660 when Margaret Hughes mounted the Vere Street stage in London as that “fresh and delicate creature” Desdemona, actresses have provided a chief inducement for a night at the theater. A ravishing face and figure make for a gratifying experience—at times an erotic one. With the actress brightly lit and the auditorium cloaked in anonymous darkness, generations of audience members and critics have indulged in voyeuristic enjoyment. Mrs. Patrick Campbell aroused legions of scribblers, one of whom described her as a “deadly combination of monstrosity and attraction.” A bit more recently, Kenneth Tynan famously described Vivien Leigh as “pert, sly, and spankable.”
Yet two plays now running, Frequency Hopping by Elyse Singer and reasons to be pretty by Neil LaBute, condemn female beauty as a hindrance, an annoyance, an irrelevance. In Frequency Hopping, Hollywood star Hedy Lamarr’s lovely curves distract from her equally beautiful mind. In reasons to be pretty, a perceived slight about a woman’s appearance destroys one couple, while knockout looks can’t keep another one together.
Frequency Hopping, produced by the Hourglass Group, animates a delectable historical fact: how movie queen Lamarr (Erica Newhouse) and avant-garde composer George Antheil (Joseph Urla) collaborated in 1941 on, in Singer’s words, a “secret communication system involving the use of carrier waves of different frequencies.” Inspired by the paper rolls of a player piano, Lamarr and Antheil devised a system whereby ships could communicate with the torpedoes they launched, changing frequencies often to thwart any jamming devices.
In Singer’s play, Lamarr needs Antheil’s assistance, but fears he won’t treat her idea seriously. So she approaches him instead with an actress-appropriate interest in an article he wrote for Esquire titled “Enhance Your Love Life Through Endocrinology,” asking his advice on hormone therapy to enlarge her breasts. (“You’d be surprised how tits figure in a girl’s career,” she says.) But once she’s lured Antheil to her bungalow, she reveals her true purpose: “It’s good for a girl to have hobbies,” she says. “I invent secret weapons. I have a dozen in my head and twice as many on paper.”
Antheil and Lamarr succeed in devising their invention and patenting it, but Lamarr worries that the authorities will think her “a fraud. A glamour girl who should just stand there and look stupid. A face on a billboard with nothing but air behind it.” Her fears are realized when the U.S. Navy replies: “Thank you very much for the patent, Miss Lamarr. We won’t be needing your services here in Washington. You are far more useful to the war effort as an actress.” They helpfully suggest that Lamarr sell kisses to raise money for war bonds. She does, earning $7 million in one day: “I’m just a gold-digger for Uncle Sam,” she sighs.
Here, Singer presents a gentle tragedy, the story of a woman who believes she can think her way out of unsatisfying circumstances, but finds that appearance and reputation condemn her to the familiar routine. Singer has chosen fine actors: Newhouse, a recent Juilliard grad, makes a clever and cuddlesome Lamarr, while Urla embodies Antheil with humor, pathos, and just a touch of sleaze. Though the play won an award from the Stage International Script Competition, a contest for works about science and technology, Singer’s a finer director than she is a playwright. The production scintillates with wonderful images and sound, making great use of 3LD’s Eyeliner projection technology and a bevy of mechanical instruments (just the kind imagined by Antheil) that play Joshua Fried’s score. But the characters remain static, and the invention occurs too early in the script, lessening dramatic tension for the rest of the play. It’s an unhappy irony that while beauty impeded Lamarr, here the production’s attractiveness can’t surmount the script’s insufficiencies.
LaBute’s unbeautiful play, produced by MCC, traces the crumbling relationship between Greg (Thomas Sadowski) and Kent (Pablo Schreiber), pals who perform manual labor at a warehouse. The dramatis personae also include Kent’s stunning wife, Carly (Piper Perabo), and Greg’s ex-girlfriend, Steph (Alison Pill), whom Greg has alienated when he describes her face as “just regular.” If Steph frets about her perceived lack of looks, Carly’s frustrated by a surfeit of them, and Kent is angered by the constant attention his wife receives.
LaBute insists in a program note on his “profound respect for work and workers and communities who live from paycheck to paycheck,” but in the play, he mocks his characters for what they eat, what they buy, and their choice of reading material. He makes most of them profoundly inarticulate, as well as blind to their true motives and emotions. One shouldn’t expect characters to mimic their playwrights, or vice versa (David Mamet probably has chats without recourse to expletives), but Kent and Carly, especially, speak in voices so far from LaBute’s own that it reads as contemptuous.
LaBute and director Terry Kinney do allow some compassion to creep into the portrait of Greg. Unlike similar characters in The Shape of Things or Fat Pig, LaBute treats him with some respect, even allowing him to mature. In a concluding speech, Greg says he’s learned the value of being nice once in a while—something nearly unheard of for a LaBute character. Of course, in this same speech, LaBute undercuts Greg by having him speak the ridiculous claim—to which the playwright seems to subscribe—that beauty “has no real value with anything important or tangible in our lives. It has nothing to do with a person, or is such a small, small part of who they really are as human beings.”
Actually, beauty’s vastly important: Ancients like Plato insisted that appreciation of a beautiful body was the first step toward philosophy; our contemporary Elaine Scarry suggests that beauty may lead us to social justice. Besides, beauty’s almost invariably a source of pleasure—a much surer source than a play by LaBute.