The last theatre company to debut this year opens a one-weekend production the final days of the decade. Nonsense Theatre Company presents a modest, richly intense staging of Neil LaBute’s Reasons to be Pretty. Gabriella Ashlin directs a small ensemble in the intimate space of The Retreat on north MLK Dr. Though some of the physicality of the production lacks convincing physical aggression, the complexity of the drama between two couples is vividly conjured to the stage in a promising opening for the new company.
The play opens in a heated argument between Tyler Fridley and Emily Elliott in the roles of Greg and Steph. Steph’s friend Carly told her that Greg said something rude about her. He doesn’t seem to know what she’s talking about. Fridley comes across as a jerk as the play opens, but that honestly might have been more a product of my bias than anything. (I have a wife and two daughters. I generally don’t like guys.) LaBute had written the dialogue to be a sophisticated balance of an argument between two people who are about as rational as...most people are. The beauty of LaBute’s script is that it flows cleverly without losing sight of an earthbound dialogue that feels quite natural. This sort of thing can be maddeningly difficult to bring to the stage in a way that FEELS natural. To their credit, Fridley and Elliott not only make the dialogue feel natural, they also manage to make a small commercial space near the offices of the DNR on North MLK feel kind of like somebody’s apartment.
With the addition of a couple of tables and a few minor elements, the stage shifts to represent a factory break room. It is there that the other two characters are introduced. Colin Kovarik plays Greg’s co-worker Kent. (He also worked as sound designer for the show. Subtle atmospheric sound in the background goes a long way toward establishing different locations in a play with almost no substantial scenic elements.) Kent IS an asshole. He makes no attempt to hide this with Greg. Kovarik does as pretty good job of making Kent’s petty villainy seem totally shameless. LaBute does attempt to etch some complexity into Kent, but the guy really doesn’t have any redeeming qualities. The physicality of the aggression that breaks out between Kent and Greg isn’t terribly compelling, but it’s really, REALLY difficult to make an open brawl work on a stage as small as the one at The Retreat. Kovarik’s aggression with Fridley may not work all that well, but the seediness of his physicality with Carly is undeniable.
Carly is a security officer at the plant that Greg and Kent work at. She’s also Kent’s wife. Emmaline Friederichs has a sharp and apparent perspicacity about her in the role of Carly. The uniform she’s wearing as security at the factory isn’t very assertive. Friederichs makes-up for this with a poise and presence that asserts itself without being constantly pushy or aggressive. Friederichs lends a sharp sense of authority about her onstage. Friederichs’ adroit awareness as Carly makes her inability to see Kent’s duplicity a bit difficult understand. There’s a scene between Kent and Carly that goes a long way toward explaining this, but LaBute makes it a real challenge by making Kent so very, very irredeemable. Friederichs’ confrontation in the break room with Kovarik is one of the more complex scenes in the entire drama. Friederichs and Kovarik handle that complexity beautifully in a scene which firmly establishes Greg as a nice guy who happens to be very flawed. All personal biases aside, Fridley does a brilliant job of making Greg an appealing and even slightly witty guy. It’s a very complicated 90 minutes or so onstage that makes fo a very enjoyable opening for Nonsense.
Nonsense Theatre Company’s staging of Reasons to Be Pretty runs through December 30th at The Retreat on 2215 N. Martin Luther King Dr. For more information, visit the show’s Facebook page.