NEW YORK There's nothing like starting a play in mid-volcanic eruption.
Which is what Neil LaBute does in "reasons to be pretty," where a verbal slugfest is in progress between a pair of battling lovers, Greg (Thomas Sadoski) and Steph (Alison Pill). Prepare to be bruised and fascinated.
LaBute is in contentious-relationship territory here, and nobody quite captures guy mind-set as well as he does, particularly when attitude, misguided or not, is at the heart of the argument. The playwright has a special knack of making the fumblings and foibles of the male sex seem extraordinarily real.
But then LaBute has been given a galvanizing production (courtesy of MCC Theater), directed with assurance by Terry Kinney and populated with a superb quartet of actors that also includes Pablo Schreiber and Piper Perabo.
Greg, stuck in an anonymous dead-end, blue-collar job, is the centerpiece of the action. He's a boy-man whose offhand comment about Steph's physical attributes sets off a disturbance that leads to their breakup. Sadoski, in one of those amazing performances that exudes a painful truthfulness, portrays a genial guy who learns the hard way that he is in over his head when it comes to women.
Despite his lapses, Greg is sensitive he seems to have an interest in 19th-century American literature.
He's definitely not like Kent, his opportunistic friend, who is cheating on his wife, Carly, with a younger woman. Portrayed by Schreiber with just the right amount of shallow, narcissistic bravado, Kent is a kind of raunchy Peter Pan, a man refusing to grow up, no matter what the consequences.
His main concern seems to be propelling the company baseball team to a trophy and not working on his marital situation with his pregnant helpmate (Perabo).
It's inevitable that the two men will come to blows, a brute-force confrontation staged with surprising realism.
Pill plays a woman deeply hurt by her boyfriend's assessment of her looks, a hurt that takes Greg a long time to understand. It's a lovely portrait of a person desperately in love but unable to get past what she considers an unforgivable transgression.
LaBute says "reasons to be pretty," which is having its world premiere at off-Broadway's Lucille Lortel Theatre, is the third part of an impressive trilogy. All deal with perceptions of physicality.
In 2001, New York saw "The Shape of Things," in which a woman, with ulterior motives, remakes her nebbish boyfriend into something he isn't. And three years later, in "Fat Pig," the playwright gave us one man's infatuation with a full-figured woman much to the consternation of the man's good friends.
This final chapter is the best of a lot. It's LaBute's most adult story or at least, his most touching tale primarily because its struggling hero, if you can call him that, really does want to grow up.