Neil LaBute’s “Reasons to Be Pretty” is the most challenging play Joan Lyons has ever directed.
And that is precisely why she’s doing it.
The playwright’s first and only to see Broadway, the hard-edged comedy can get nasty and uncomfortable, testing audience sympathy and allegiance as they watch the action unfold on stage, unbuttoning the strikingly complex characters for all their worth.
With that comes a script that Lyons was not prepared for, she said.
“I love LaBute, but I’ll tell you what I don’t appreciate: He has a very unique way of writing this show,” the director said. “He refers to it as the ‘uncommonness of common language,’ where people interrupt each other and they interject. It’s really hard for the actors to learn. They’re waiting for someone to cut them off, to interrupt them. And if that doesn’t happen, there’s a dangling end of the line.”
But Lyons said she isn’t worried. Actors Jonathan Fogarty, Bethany Dellapolla, John Lovett and Bethany Trowbridge have handled the script with grace — as well as her direction — and will be ready for opening night on Friday, January 11, at the Southampton Cultural Center.
“I like to just pull the whole thing apart and then put it back to together, and see what you come up with,” she said. “I think there’s definitely a richness of the characters that I didn’t expect to see, and that’s a tribute to my fine cast. There are nuances in the characters that we’ve pushed.”
Lyons and her cast of four quickly realized there was more than met the surface of the contemporary play, which opens with Steph (Dellapolla) ripping into her longtime boyfriend, Greg (Fogarty) — who had remarked to his best friend and co-worker, Kent (Lovett) that he finds his girlfriend is “regular,” as compared to a recent hire at their company, but wouldn’t trade her for the world.
The comment, without much context, makes its way back to Steph via her best friend, and Kent’s girlfriend, Carly (Trowbridge), and hysteria ensues.
“Steph is very volatile — screaming and yelling at Greg, and swearing. She’s basically going berserk,” Lyons said. “Bethany Dellapolla, who plays this role, is so sweet and kind and gentle, and she brings something to Steph that I didn’t see in Steph at all in the reading and choosing of this play.
“She’s really truly hurt by what Greg says,” the director continued. “This is not just her way of getting out of a relationship that’s going nowhere. You don’t always get that on the first five or six read-throughs. Some things you don’t get until you put it on its legs and you see the words come out of someone’s mouth.”
The complexity and dynamic between both the characters and actors can change in that instant, Lyons said, which is exactly what happened during a recent dress rehearsal — at a time when she was questioning the production choice herself.
“Sometimes you love the show right off the bat, but sometimes you’re like, ‘I don’t know, maybe this wasn’t the show to pick,’” she said. “A couple weeks ago, we had our promo photos done and they had to be in costume, and we were running through bits of the show, and there was this moment that clicked for me and I said, ‘This is the moment I fell in love with the show.’”
It was during Steph’s monologue, which is not particularly moving, Lyons said, but she was still reduced to tears. “I’m getting weepy now thinking about it,” she laughed. “It just came together in that moment. I thought, ‘This is why I do this.’
“All these months and months in the theater, away from my home and my family and everything else, impacting my work and my social life — that one moment when it clicks, it makes everything else completely worth it,” she continued. “It’s not just the words that are coming off the page. It’s that family that gets formed.”
At its core, the challenge of the show is that, ultimately, it has nothing to do with looks or beauty, Lyons said. It is all about honesty — both externally and internally — and communicating that in every arena of life, she said.
“What I’d like people to take away from the play is this: These are life-changing decisions that you’re making every day,” she said,” and you really need to communicate them. Don’t leave it for someone to guess what you’re thinking or what you want. You need to tell them.”
“Reasons to be Pretty” will open on Friday, January 11, at 7 p.m. at the Southampton Cultural Center, located at 25 Pond Lane in Southampton. Additional performances will be held on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7 p.m., and Sundays at 2:30 p.m., through January 27. Tickets are $25. For more information, call (631) 287-4377 or visit scc-arts.org.