Neil LaBute pushes buttons with ‘Reasons To Be Pretty’

Playwright Neil LaBute continues to address the question: Why are positive character traits associated with people who are physically attractive?

It’s one of the themes in “Reasons to Be Pretty,” opening this week in an SF Playhouse production following runs in New York, both off- and on Broadway.

The show, the third in a trilogy that includes “The Shape of Things” and “Fat Pig,” deals with how body-image issues affect people and their relationships, and follows a template similar to its predecessors.

All three have four characters — two women and two men — and all have one of the male characters in each scene.

For LaBute, the topic of appearance vs. personality and, he says, “The lengths we go through, to change ourselves and others” have enough breadth and depth to sustain his interest.

His choice to focus on it isn’t commercially calculated, and only partly personally ?motivated.

“I didn’t consider myself one of the beautiful people, but it’s an interesting quality: This just happened, it was just given to you by birth, born into royalty by chance,” he says. “I like that a lot — that lives are guided by luck or chance.”

He has expanded on the theme with creative casting through the years. Just off her success as Ally McBeal on TV, Calista Flockhart played a child murderer in his play “Bash.” Eric McCormack, fresh from his adorable gay TV character in “Will & Grace,” was cast as a woman-hating, “very hetero” serial monogamist in his play “Some Girls.”

LaBute enjoys “the weird push-pull of the audience” such casting creates.

Known for dealing with the dark side of human nature in his plays and movies such as “Your Friends and Neighbors” and “In the Company of Men” (which he also directed), LaBute wants to push himself in new ?directions these days.

“I’m trying to write just a comedy, something I could put the label ‘comedy’ on,” he says, adding, “It’s tough. It’s really hard to sit down and try to be funny,” and rattles off a list of people he respects who make it look easy: Woody Allen (“Manhattan” is “flawless to look at and listen to”), Noel Coward, Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, Neil Simon, Elaine May, Mel Brooks.

He also wants to write for television, to “tell stories about characters for more than one show.”

With “Reasons to Be Pretty,” however, he is managing to fulfill that wish. A sequel, “Reasons to Be Happy,” with the same characters — “working-class people who work the third-shift, the people you don’t even see, who live off the clock” — opens in New York in May.


Reasons to Be Pretty: Presented by SF Playhouse

  • Where: 450 Post St., S.F.
  • When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; closes May 11
  • Tickets: $30 to $70
  • Contact: (415) 677-9596,
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