House of Ill LaBute: Yet another domestic excoriation from the master of scorn.

Dear Neil LaBute,

We know you’re capable of winding us up. What I’d like to know is whether you’re ever going to explain why you do it. Is it bitterness? Cheap scorn? Just a habit?

I know, I know: Reasons to Be Pretty supposedly represents a newly mature kind of play for you. You actually seem to like one or two of the four characters—your tongue-tied warehouse box-humper Greg, certainly, though I’m still not sure about Steph, the hairstylist girlfriend whose self-esteem he so clumsily wrecks. Or Carly, the decent but not-so-bright security guard you keep condescending to, even as you elbow us unsubtly toward something like pity for her.

Yes, I admire your facility with language. You’ve got a real ear for abuse, and it’s entertaining the way you launch the play with that explosion—what is it, five minutes? eight?—of hurt and evasion and escalating rage. That, come to think of it, is part of why you trouble me: When you’re not despising the people you hold up to your audiences like some grim, unforgiving mirror, you’re appealing to our basest spectator instincts, displaying recognizable people suffering recognizable anguish, deploying them like Christians and lions and gladiators for our delectation, giving off an authorial whiff that smells an awful lot like amusement. It makes me think of cynical, road-weary circus roustabouts, poking the elephants with those long-hooked poles to keep them lined up prettily for the paying crowd. You’ll forgive me for saying so, but I don’t like those guys much, either.

I do think David Muse and his cast are doing you a favor at the Studio Theatre. I hear the guy who played Greg in New York was terrific, but he can’t have been much better than Ryan Artzberger, who’s creating a wonderfully complicated portrait of a regular guy here. He’s stubborn and glib early on—when he doesn’t want to admit that calling his girlfriend’s face “regular” is a ditching offense, when he’s trying to smooth things over and wheedle her back into bed. Then he’s convincingly broken when he realizes that she’s really done with him—and later still, when the signs suggest that the door might be open again, his struggle to do the right thing is kinda heartbreaking. (So I’ll overlook that you basically lifted that moment from the conclusion of Moon for the Misbegotten; you did switch the genders, so we’ll call it an homage.)

Margot White is pretty terrific casting, too: She’s convincingly plain and pretty by turns, which is probably tougher than I realize. And the eruption of passion in that opening rant is eclipsed only by the shaky, spill-over-the-dam feeling with which she frames that famous catalog of Greg’s deficiencies. You know, the one you set in the food court at the mall, with the audience of shoppers. Because public humiliations, I guess, are still intensely interesting to you. (Sidebar: It’s cheating to let her unload on Greg, then claim she doesn’t mean it so she can keep the high ground. You’ll probably argue that’s her character flaw, but I’m going to argue it’s yours.)

Back on the public humiliations, though: Way to write a fight scene, there on the softball field, after Greg has wised up to what a tool his friend Kent is. And again, the Studio folks are doing you proud: Thom Miller is so thoroughly repugnant, such a bratty, bullying example of LaButian manhood that by the midpoint of that scene, I didn’t just want Greg to punch him. I wanted Greg to pick up the bat Kent had just been swinging so aggressively and beat the motherfucker to death.

So yeah, you’ve still got it. You’re a craftsman, and you’re observant, and you know that people can be shits, and you can pull all those strings and make us feel whatever you want us to feel. I guess my question is: What the hell happened to you, man, that you want us to feel so goddamn bad?