New York is only three hours ahead of L.A., but in theatrical time, the distance often seems greater. Broadway events, like starlight from distant galaxies, can take years to reach us.
Case in point: We’re still gathering evidence of a great emotional shift in the work of Neil LaBute, whose “Reasons to Be Pretty,” nominated for the Tony Award for best play in 2009, has at last arrived at the Geffen Playhouse, where it proves to be a humane, tenderhearted coming-of-age story.
Stay with me, here. Yes, LaBute’s examinations of narcissistic, sexually exploitative men and their female victims (the movies “In the Company of Men,” “Your Friends & Neighbors”) have earned him a reputation as a misogynist or misanthrope or both.
The Geffen has previously produced five LaBute plays (”Fat Pig,” “Some Girl(s),” “Wrecks,” “The Break of Noon” and an adaptation of August Strindberg’s “Miss Julie”), which have their admirers and detractors but are seldom held out as endorsements of men’s depth of character.
Greg (Shawn Hatosy), the well-meaning, feckless protagonist of “Reasons to Be Pretty,” actually can be seen growing up, developing moral fiber through his deceptively antiheroic travails. (Fair warning: Hatosy, a ninja of a performer, will sneak up and slay you while you’re complacently underestimating him.)
In director Randall Arney’s persuasive interpretation, the play’s putative subject matter — our obsession with female beauty and the ramifications for women who have it as well as women who don’t — is beside the point.
All four characters spend a lot of time discussing beauty. Each even spells out his or her attitude toward it in a preachy, extraneous monologue. The acting is so vivid that we don’t chafe at being lectured. But in Arney’s telling, LaBute’s real story is the way life builds us up by breaking us down.
Greg starts out thoroughly mushy, a well-meaning slacker who uses most of his energy to avoid confrontation. When we meet him, he’s in the middle of a big one: His girlfriend, Stephanie (Amber Tamblyn, who makes crazy look adorable), is screeching profanities at him across their bedroom, quivering with rage, dancing and cracking her neck like a prizefighter, refusing to let him off the hook no matter how he wriggles.
We eventually learn what Greg did to trigger this attack: Over beers with his coworker and high school buddy Kent (the sexily obnoxious Nick Gehlfuss), Greg described Stephanie’s face as “regular.”
Kent’s wife, Carly (an appealing, low-key Alicia Witt), perhaps taking her job as a security guard a little too seriously, felt the need to report the adjective to Stephanie, who interpreted it as “ugly.” Greg can’t or won’t find a way to atone for this slight, so Stephanie leaves him.
Greg turns to Kent for comfort; they work the night shift loading boxes at a factory, eating lunch at 3 a.m. in the grim break room. But Kent, an entertaining, loathsome villain in the classic LaBute mold, has no comfort to offer: He’s too busy frantically objectifying women. His treatment of Carly puts the noncommittal Greg in an ethical quandary that finally forces him to take a stand — in a showdown persuasively staged by “violence designer” Ned Mochel.
The rest of the production values are equally impressive: Scenic designer Takeshi Kata pares each set, sliding seamlessly off and onstage, to its essence. And costume designer David Kay Mickelson, though largely constrained to uniforms, gets to show off his keen cultural eye in the self-esteem-building outfits Stephanie favors after her breakup.
The Mamet-like dialogue, at once naturalistic and mannered, occasionally feels repetitive; each scene spins its wheels for a few beats too long.
But the meticulously crafted performances keep us engaged —and whet our appetites for the sequel, “Reasons to Be Happy,” which premiered in New York in 2013 and so should arrive here within most of our lifetimes.
“Reasons to Be Pretty.” Geffen Playhouse, 10866 Le Conte Ave. Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Aug. 31. $39 to $79. (310) 208-5454 or www.geffenplayhouse.com. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.