The coldblooded rogues' gallery of antiheroes that inhabits playwright Neil LaBute's universe demands a new word to adequately describe it: La•Bu•tean (lah-byoo'-tyen): adj., of, pertaining to or suggestive of the perfidious cruelty, moral cowardice and emotional retrogression displayed by otherwise average guys, especially when goaded by the manipulative camaraderie of their man-boy friends.
La•Bu•tean (lah-byoo’-tyen): adj.
In 2009's Reasons to Be Pretty, making its L.A. premiere at the Geffen Playhouse, those attributes combine with an un-LaButean note of hopeful redemption. A superb Shawn Hatosy stars as the passive and gullible Greg, whose four-year relationship with Steph (a virtuosic Amber Tamblyn) goes up in flames in the play's first 10 minutes when he finds himself facing the blowtorch of Steph's rage.
Though his offense boils down to a single unguarded word overheard at a party, Greg's real crime is one of callowly misplaced loyalties. The limits of that callowness are put to the test when the womanizing, narcissistic Kent (a delightfully contemptible Nick Gehlfuss) embarks on an extramarital affair, forcing Greg to choose between covering for his buddy or doing what's right by Kent's pregnant and vulnerable wife (a nicely understated Alicia Witt).
Director Randall Arney's fiercely funny production (on Takeshi Kata's versatile set, beneath Daniel Ionazzi's crisp lights) benefits from the winning physicality of Hatosy and Tamblyn, who play their scenes like circling boxers, jabbing and dodging at one another's defenses. The approach deftly undercuts the moral bleakness of LaBute's emotional landscape with notes of tender melancholy and regret.
Just how bleak and unrelenting that landscape can get is suggested by In a Dark Dark House, 2007's excavation of the formative traumas and festering psychopathologies at the root of adult LaButean misbehavior.
The title alludes to more than one domicile. There's the farmhouse that was once the childhood home of Terry (Aaron McPherson), an emotionally scarred, angry, 30-something security guard, and his married younger brother, Drew (Shaun Sipos), an affluent attorney facing jail time after wrecking his car and getting arrested for DUI and possession of cocaine.
Then there's the family's old tree house, a refuge where adolescent Terry could escape the beatings of their abusive father and seek solace in the age-inappropriate friendship of an older farmhand named Todd. Whether Drew serves time depends on whether he can convince Terry to testify in open court about the true nature of that friendship.
If that doesn't sound like fertile ground for even the grimmest of black humor, it isn't. Though Act 1 is rife with Drew's attempts to ingratiate himself with masculine banter, the older brother remains immune; Terry is far too fixated on the paralyzing wounds of the past to be susceptible to Drew's glib brand of persuasion.
More's the pity. In an otherwise handsome production that boasts the counterpoint of John Iacovelli's unsettlingly surreal, manicured-garden set, director Larry Moss' hystrionic hand overwhelms the calibrated rhythms of LaBute's verbal sparring while tediously telegraphing the zigzag twists of the play's psychological-mystery plot.
Faring far better is director David Svengalis' leaner, meaner revival of 2004's Some Girl(s), finishing up an extended Hollywood Fringe Festival run at Three Clubs. (It also ran at the Geffen in 2008.)
In a cleverly astringent inversion of romantic comedy conventions, a writer of autobiographical fiction (played with convincing, quietly menacing guile by Gregory James) crisscrosses the country on the eve of his wedding to visit five dubious ex-girlfriends (the outstanding quintet of Laura Hartley, Sophie Hannah, Tara Price, Brianne La Flair and Katherine Diaz) to clean the slate and, he repeatedly claims with ever-decreasing plausibility, to “right a wrong.”
The women have good reason to be skeptical. With each stop, the protagonist's mounting history of head-spinning relationship transgressions gradually strips away his mask of reasonableness and penitent sincerity to reveal the archetypal LaButean cad — a conscienceless user and deeply cynical and dishonest exploiter of any woman unlucky enough to fall under the spell of his charms.
REASONS TO BE PRETTY | Geffen Playhouse, 1066 Le Conte Ave., Westwood | Through Aug. 31 | (310) 208-5454, geffenplayhouse.com
IN A DARK DARK HOUSE | Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave., Fairfax | Through Aug. 3 | (323) 960-7612, darkhousela.com
SOME GIRL(S) | Three Clubs Cabaret Stage, 1123 Vine St., Hlywd. | Through Aug. 31 | Hollywoodfringe.org/projects/1918