Reasons to be pretty in Lebanon
Jurdi and Labaki go head to head in a diner.
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Revenge is sweet. As U.S. playwright, screenwriter and film director Neil LaBute demonstrated in his “Reasons to be Pretty,” it can also be very entertaining at times.
A brand-new Lebanese incarnation of LaBute’s black comedy about beauty and relationships is currently on show at the Masrah al-Madina in Hamra.LaBute’s play explores the importance of physical appearances, perceptions of beauty, sexual attraction and fidelity. These are serious topics, but dealt with in a refreshingly lighthearted manner, with a consistent vein of (dark) humor running throughout.
The play has been adapted into Lebanese Arabic by director Jacques Maroun, the founder of the Actors Workshop. Interpreted by a cast of four well-known Lebanese actors, each with substantial film, television and theater experience, the play is pulling in crowds outside Beirut’s compact theater hard-core. Some of them, Maroun says, have never been to see a play before.
“The subject is universal really, it’s not Lebanese per se,” he says. “There is maybe a particular obsession [with beauty] in Lebanon, and maybe an increased amount of pressure always to ... look your best ... so the subject might work a bit better here than another country, but I think overall it’s a universal subject.”
The star of the show is Talal el-Jurdi, who plays the likeable but fatefully tactless Adel, longtime boyfriend of Stephanie (Nadine Labaki, in her first theatrical role).
Foiling the couple is Adel’s pal Toufic (Elie Mitri), with whom he co-manages a diner, and his attractive young wife, Carla (Nada Abou Farhat).
The play opens with a screaming row between Adel and Stephanie, who is incensed when Carla repeats his ill-advised observation that his girlfriend is beginning to age and lose her looks.
The play charts the impact of this passing remark on the couple’s four-year relationship, as well as that of Toufic and Carla – whose perfect-looking marriage is not as blissful as it appears.
Labaki does a commendable job in her first live role. “On stage you have to raise your voice. You have to make everything a little bit louder and more exaggerated,” the actress explains. “I found it a little bit difficult in the beginning because ... when I’m making a film I try as much as I can to be very close to reality.”
If anything, Labaki’s turn in the opening scene of Thursday’s performances was perhaps a little too exaggerated, when her quarrel with the hapless Adel veered from slapstick to farce. Her onstage presence became more nuanced after this scene, however, and included one show-stealing monologue, in which she avenges Adel’s slight on her appearance.
The theater filled with laughter as Labaki mounted a chair during Adel’s attempted reconciliation speech. Taking several sheets of pink note paper from her bag, she read aloud a list of his shortcomings, including the fact that he’s starting to go bald – “I know, I work in a salon” – that she doesn’t like his eyes, and that his copious body hair makes him look like a monkey.
Jurdi was equally entertaining as the harassed boyfriend, protesting then lapsing into a resigned silence, head cradled in his arms on the table, allowing the stage lights to highlight the bald spot on the crown of his head.
Mitri was appropriately unpleasant as Adel’s baby-talking, lecherous friend, while Abou Farhat, who at first seemed rather stiff, came into her own midway through the show when Carla began to show her vulnerable side.
Designed by Soulafa Soubra, the set is ambitious but effective, cleverly transforming the theater’s wide stage into a more intimate setting. A central area, covered with a white cloth, acts as the floor of a room which, with the use of complex 3-D backdrops, is transformed from a bedroom, to the staff room of the diner, a restaurant, the street outside a bar and a football field.
The production’s attention to detail renders these settings strangely believable, despite the yawning area of unused stage around them – lights on the water dispenser and microwave glow green in the staffroom, while the time on the wall clock changes from scene to scene.
Overhead lights, raised and lowered from the ceiling, also give each set its own ambience – footlights at either side of the stage make the football pitch appear vast, while the white glare of two strip lights give the diner’s staff room a cold, institutional feel.
Maroun says he was keen to remain true to the original play. He did change small details to make it more accessible to a local audience, and to ensure that its subject matter worked in a different cultural context. Aside from changing the characters’ names to Adel and Toufic, he recast LaBute’s male factory workers as diner managers.
Translating the dialogue was naturally the main challenge.
“It is Lebanese Arabic. It’s not literary Arabic, obviously,” explains Maroun, “so the way I say a sentence is different than the way Talal would say [it] ... [The play] is contemporary and it’s based on realism. To keep that convention you have to be very fluid with the language ... the actor has to be very comfortable with the way he says the sentence.”
The dialogue retains LaBute’s hallmark naturalism, and additional humor is inserted as Maroun’s script reiterates the Lebanese tendency to litter Arabic conversation with phrases of English and French. This gives Toufic some comically mangled references to “talky-walkies” and poorly pronounced English expressions, which he obviously feels make him sound sophisticated.
Overall “Reasons to be Pretty” is an engaging and entertaining show – a welcome breath of lighthearted humor after the grim events of the past few months.
“Reasons to be Pretty,” is on show at Masrah al-Madina in Hamra until the end of November, and may continue throughout December. For more information call 01-753-010.
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