As its title suggests, "Reasons to Be Pretty" deals to some extent with a culture in thrall to physical beauty. However, the real subject of this taut, unexpectedly affecting drama is a man forced to take a long, hard look at himself after a flippant comment about his girlfriend's appearance kills their relationship.

As its title suggests, “Reasons to Be Pretty” deals to some extent with a culture in thrall to physical beauty. However, the real subject of this taut, unexpectedly affecting drama is a man forced to take a long, hard look at himself after a flippant comment about his girlfriend’s appearance kills their relationship. Nobody’s going to call Neil LaBute a redemptive playwright, and even in this reflective mood, he’s not exactly forgiving about men’s failings and women’s weaknesses. But there’s compassion and even tenderness running through this play that make it one of his best.

The final part of a trilogy about the contemporary fixation with physical appearance, following “The Shape of Things” and “Fat Pig,” “Reasons” premiered last summer in Terry Kinney’s sinewy production for MCC Theater. Its transfer, with two of the four roles recast and some smart structural changes, marks the prolific LaBute’s Broadway debut.

The playwright grabs attention instantly by shoving the audience into the middle of an explosion of hurled invective and angry self-defense. As Greg (Thomas Sadoski) struggles to defuse the incendiary situation, we gradually learn what caused volcanic Steph (Marin Ireland) to erupt: He was overheard comparing her looks unfavorably to those of the cute new girl in shipping at his warehouse job. The comment was repeated, and Steph is not letting it go.

While it’s brutally entertaining, the highly physical opening scene is a little too peppered with clever dialogue and glib side references to be entirely naturalistic in such a moment of sustained rage. But beneath LaBute’s manicured exchange of abuse and excuses, he hits on a penetrating truth about how an ill-chosen word or two can undermine or even destroy a relationship. The playwright is at his abrasive best in seeding sympathy for Greg even though he’s the one who was out of line, while painting volatile Steph as harsh and unyielding.

But the contemplative play goes significantly beyond culpability or forgiveness. Over a further seven pithy scenes, broken by blaring time clocks, flashing security lights and violent blasts of music, Greg licks his wounds while Steph attempts to move on.

Intruding on Greg’s self-reassessment is his night-shift buddy Kent (Steven Pasquale), an arrogant, bullying dirtbag who peppers his conversations with misogynistic, homophobic or racist remarks. An expert, in his crude way, at twisting the knife of Greg’s unhappiness, Kent regards himself as a shrewd operator, manipulating his wife Carly (Piper Perabo) without being in any way accountable to her. His affair with the unseen babe in shipping widens the growing split between the two men.

LaBute makes plenty of gnawing observations about the different codes of honor among men and women. But it’s when Carly — a warehouse security guard and the one who blabbed to Steph about the incriminating comment — turns to Greg, expecting the same degree of loyalty, that his bruising education becomes complete.

The play’s series of bristling confrontations and agonizing negotiations has a cumulative power, particularly in the exquisitely painful post-breakup scenes between Greg and Steph, rippling with lingering affection and unresolved issues.

Ireland (taking over from Alison Pill, who played the role Off Broadway) gives off formidable nervous energy, yet she never lets it mask the character’s deep hurt, her insecurities or her last-ditch hopes for Greg somehow to make it right. While her work here is completely different from her searing catatonia in “Blasted” last fall, the actress again holds nothing back. In a vicious tirade in which Steph reads aloud a carefully composed litany of Greg’s physical faults in a food court, Ireland skillfully shows his humiliation and hurt are equaled by the punishment she inflicts on herself.

Sadoski matches her every step as Greg, the bleeding heart of the play and a breakthrough character for LaBute, who has specialized in unrepentant shits, usually unwilling to learn from their mistakes. When Greg confesses he’s unable to live with himself, Sadoski conveys that feeling in his bones; he’s not just paying lip service to Steph to make her feel better.

In one beautifully played scene, Greg bumps into Steph out on a date, snarling that she’s inevitably setting herself up to be hurt again. “He’s a guy, and so it’s a done deal,” he says. “He will find a way to damage you, and that’s a fact.” In most LaBute plays, a statement like that might be made with unapologetic pride. But despite his resentment as he spits out the words, Greg knows what he’s saying is true, and it continues to eat away at him. Sadoski channels that unease into every moment. His awkwardness is profoundly touching, but there’s not an ounce of false sentiment in the performance or the writing.

Pasquale (replacing Pablo Schreiber) captures Kent’s pathetic side as sharply as his contemptibility, while Perabo does a nice job illustrating that Carly’s vulnerability can’t be hidden behind a badge and a uniform.

The play benefits considerably from the removal of four extraneous monologues in which each character addressed the audience to articulate themes now more fully apparent in their shared scenes. LaBute’s writing also makes gains by abandoning his penchant for shocking twists, and by shifting from a cold professional sphere into a blue-collar environment.

Economically described in David Gallo’s uncluttered sets, framed by container cages of warehouse goods, this is a hard world of narrow options. But the playwright’s view of it is uncondescending, his trademark sourness and scorn replaced by surprising empathy.

Reasons to Be Pretty

Lyceum Theater; 910 seats; $111.50 top

Production

A Jeffrey Richards, Jerry Frankel, Gary Goddard Entertainment, Ted Snowdon, Doug Nevin/Erica Lynn Schwartz, Ronald Frankel/Bat-Barry Prods., Kathleen Seidel, Kelpie Arts, Jam Theatricals, Rachel Helson/Heather Provost presentation of an MCC Theater production of a play in two acts by Neil LaBute. Directed by Terry Kinney.

Crew

Sets, David Gallo; costumes, Sarah J. Holden; lighting, David Weiner; original music and sound, Rob Milburn, Michael Bodeen; fight direction, Manny Siverio; technical supervision, Hudson Theatrical Associates; production stage manager, Christine Lemme. Opened April 2, 2009. Reviewed March 28. Running time: 2 HOURS.

With

Greg - Thomas Sadoski Steph - Marin Ireland Kent - Steven Pasquale Carly - Piper Perabo
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