Where art’s concerned, Americans love reality—or, anyway, what they take to be reality. In their eagerness to niggle over its details, they often let larger issues zip past them, swallowing giant conceptual camels while they strain at infinitesimal gnats. Both Christopher Durang’s Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them (Public Theater) and Neil LaBute’s Reasons to Be Pretty (Lyceum Theatre) deal with what you might call abusive relationships. Durang’s play—loose-jointed, digressive, bearing serious concerns but largely comic in tone—repeatedly breaks and resets its ostensibly realistic framework, sustaining zero pretense of reality. LaBute’s work, small-scale, tautly written, and machine-gun-rhythmed, puts all its readjustments inside the reality it presents. Ironically, it’s Durang’s result—messy, often uncertainly written, and all over the intellectual map—that seems more “real.” Our crazy world readjusts the framework we live in so constantly that the tidy forms of traditional writing barely seem to match it anymore.
I don’t present that last comment as a criticism of LaBute, but as a statement of our collective dilemma: What’s a playwright to do, with life changing so fast that art can’t keep up? A possible start might be to admit one’s puzzlement openly. Here, Durang has a clear advantage: When he dislikes something about the world he’s writing in, his flexible form lets him say so; the act of playwriting itself remonstrates against the way we live now. A sweet-natured young woman, comically named Felicity (Laura Benanti), wakes up in a hotel bedroom one morning to find herself married to a handsome total stranger named Zamir (Amir Arison), who holds alarming views on marriage. Instead of calling a lawyer, indecisive Felicity takes Zamir to New Jersey to meet her parents, a variant on Durang’s customary dysfunctional couple: This time, Mom (Kristine Nielsen) is a nattering culture-vulture, whose Broadway-fixated chitchat supplies a running feed line of Durangian commentary on current theater, while Dad (Richard Poe) is a violence-obsessed right-winger, busily plotting with shadowy colleagues (Audrie Neenan and David Aaron Baker) even loony-tunier than he.
Zamir instantly becomes their target, and, as tensions escalate, torture becomes a distinct possibility—Durang hates the idea but doesn’t flinch from it—till Felicity has to rescue the situation, first by calling in the shady reverend (John Pankow) who married them, and when that doesn’t work, through an Emily Webb–like act of restaging the past. This produces results that are less violent but almost more deeply rueful than those she woke up to. Lives are incurable and relationships chancy at best, but if you can avoid date rape, identity theft, subjugation, mutilation, and terrorist attacks, you’re about as close as this world gets to a happy ending.
Durang’s writing always displays revue-sketch temptations, making his less-centered plays tricky to unify. Nicholas Martin, a director with a wonderful knack for humanizing brittle comedy, has managed elegantly to keep this one from cracking apart. He gets beautiful, vulnerably sincere work from Benanti, modulates Nielsen’s showy outrageousness into unmannered freshness, and elicits strong, funny supporting performances from Arison, a newcomer, as well as Baker, Neenan, Pankow, and Poe. He even squeezes sight gags from the revolving of David Korins’s set. In blunter hands, Durang’s disturbing comic sense would probably still come through, but the healing touch that glides us past its hesitations wouldn’t be there, leaving its nervous distress naked and painful.
Deep distress underlies the minuscule incident that unravels two couples and four friendships in Reasons to Be Pretty. Two things hamper LaBute, though, as his story snowballs from the misreporting of an overheard remark into private quarrels, public scenes, adulteries, separations, petty revenges, and fistfights. One is that his preoccupation with life’s minutiae seems to keep him from conveying the bigger matters involved more lucidly. The evening starts with a young woman (Marin Ireland) ranting at her hapless boyfriend (Thomas Sadoski), the maker of the misreported remark, with such excessive emotional violence that, instead of focusing as the playwright does on the substance of their problematic relationship, you simply wonder why the woman’s anger-management problems haven’t gotten her in bigger trouble long before. Similar questions apply as the focus shifts to the boyfriend’s connection with his best buddy (Steven Pasquale). They’ve been friends since high school: How has he never noticed that the guy is a classic manipulative user?
As the story rolls on, the questions mount, a lot of them coming from what seems to be a kind of social dislocation. Sadoski plays a warehouse employee who improves his mind by reading Hawthorne and Poe on his breaks, which makes this a different story from the one it seems at first. His intelligence makes his failure to grasp what’s going on even more puzzling, and his distance from the others makes the whole quadrangular crisscross seem a delayed adolescent kerfuffle. The story shrinks, instead of gaining resonance, under the weight of so many reasons to be petty. Line for line, though, LaBute’s writing is always vivid; you can see why actors go for it, and Terry Kinney’s direction has evoked sharp, convincing performances from all four of his cast members. Only the play’s constant search for effectiveness at the expense of meaning vitiates its energy: You’re always distracted by wondering what would happen if the character exiting didn’t pause at that exact moment to say or hear exactly the wrong thing.
You never hear the exact anything in Tina Howe’s Chasing Manet (Primary Stages); it’s trapped in a maddening disjunction between its absurdist sensibility and its quasi-realistic narrative. A blind artist (Jane Alexander) plots her escape from the nursing home in which her ineffectual son (Jack Gilpin) has stuck her, enlisting her dotty new roommate (Lynn Cohen) as co-conspirator. Cohen is delightful and the supporting cast enchanting whenever Howe’s lunatic verbal reveries take over; Alexander, a total class act, takes resplendent histrionic advantage of both reality and wordplay, but even she can’t sustain two full acts of their unwieldy mixture.