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Geffen Playhouse replaces Pinter play with Neil LaBute drama

Arts and CultureLong IslandGil Cates

Forced to jettison a master of disquieting stage menace, Harold Pinter, when its revival of “The Birthday Party” broke an axle or two during rehearsals last month, the Geffen Playhouse is filling the hole in its season with “Reasons to Be Pretty” by Neil LaBute, another playwright whose hallmark is confronting audiences with some of humanity’s darker habits and impulses.

Running July 29 to Aug. 31 on the Geffen’s main stage, the Gil Cates Theater, it will be the sixth LaBute drama that the company has staged since 2007 -- the most recent being last year’s adaptation of August Strindberg’s “Miss Julie,” transplanted to 1920s Long Island. The director and cast remain to be announced.

 “Reasons to Be Pretty” concerns two young working-class couples who have at each other for a variety of perceived wrongs, among them whether one of the men has been criticizing his girlfriend’s looks behind her back.

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Reviewing the 2008 off-Broadway production, New York Times critic Ben Brantley, who liked the show, used phrases such as “a firestorm of abuse and invective, hot enough to scald the hide off a thick-skinned man” and “even audience members accustomed to the outright nastiness of much of Mr. LaBute’s previous plays will find themselves squirming” -- although he did say Labute’s compassion for his characters came through.

The Geffen also announced Wednesday that it is bringing back Mona Golabek’s solo show, “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” which had a 21-week run in 2012 in its smaller Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater. It will move up to the 522-seat Cates Theater for a Feb. 25 to March 9 run. 

Subscribers who think they’d prefer something “elegant, heartfelt” and “genuinely inspirational,” as a Los Angeles Times reviewer described Golabek’s portrayal of her mother, a budding classical pianist in Vienna who is uprooted by the Nazi onslaught, to LaBute’s emotional mayhem can opt for that show instead of “Reasons to Be Pretty.” Hershey Felder is the director, having also adapted the script from Golabek’s book, “The Children of Willesden Lane.”

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“The Birthday Party” was postponed indefinitely after the British actor Steven Berkoff left the production in mid-January after repeated clashes with director William Friedkin. The actor said he quit; the director said he’d have been fired had he stayed.

The switch creates a playwrights’ horse-race of sorts at the Geffen this summer, which will end in a tie.

Donald Margulies will notch his sixth Geffen Playhouse production with the June 3 to July 13 premiere of “The Country House,” billed as a Chekovian poignant comedy. That will edge him momentarily ahead of LaBute’s five previous Geffen shows. 

But, pinch-hitting for Pinter, LaBute will step up to the plate two weeks later and tie the Westwood record for the most playwriting at-bats.  We’ll leave it to the commissioner’s office to decide whether LaBute’s record should come with an asterisk, since his first three Geffen shows, “Fat Pig” (2007), “Some Girl(s),” (2008) and “Wrecks,” (2009) were on the smaller Audrey stage, while Margulies has stuck to the bigger house.

LaBute did double duty as director of “Some Girl(s),” “Wrecks” and his “The Break of Noon,” seen on the main stage in 2011.

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