I’ve said repeatedly that you never know how much an actor can deliver until you’ve seen him or her in a strong play. Well, I found out last night how exacting and passionate and super-dimensional Amber Tamblyn, Shawn Hatosy, Alicia Witt and Nick Gehlfuss are when push comes to shove. It happened during a two-hour-and-40-minute performance of Neil Labute‘s Reasons To Be Pretty, which I saw at the Geffen theatre in Westwood. It’s running until 8.31, and I’m telling you that…okay, a semi-pricey ticket to Randall Arney‘s production (mine cost $85) is worth its weight in gold. The writing, acting, emotion…forget it. Far more potent than 90% if not 95% of the films and cable fare out there. Really. I felt alive, taken. A kind of throbby, buzzy feeling in my veins.

I’ve been a particular fan of Tamblyn for several years now (Joan of Arcadia, Stephanie Daley, her poetry, that recent Hateful Eight reading), but her performance as Steph, a hairdresser who goes ballistic when her live-in, factory-employed boyfriend, Greg (Hatosy), is overheard describing her looks as “regular” — a bullet to the heart — has to be the best thing she’s ever done. She’s startling, heartbreaking…everything you can imagine that a gifted, live-wire actress could be in a you-are-there, holy-shit realm. Hatosy also — he’s been humping it hard in films and television since the mid ’90s and nothing he’s done has come anywhere close to his Reasons performance. For the first time in nearly 20 years the guy woke me up. Wow…he’s fucking got it! Not Hatosy’s fault — it’s the nature of film and TV to underuse actors. Obviously not entirely but mostly. Sufficient, no-big-deal dialogue. Stories that distract or vaguely “entertain” but rarely elevate.

Labute is not known for writing about warmth or kindness or airy-fairy currents. Ever since he first popped in ’97 with In The Company of Men he’s been known as a purveyor of cruelty and abrasion between the sexes. Reasons To Be Pretty, which premiered in ’08 and which I saw twice in ’09 on the Broadway stage, was a turnaround — the first Labute play in which he tried a little tenderness, and which really played fair and square on behalf of both sides. It’s about two couples living in a nondescript town (my guess was either Rochester or Akron or Fort Wayne or those general vicinities) and working dull, nondescript jobs, and three of them working in the same factory. It’s about a breakup that’s going down between Steph and Greg over the afore-mentioned slight, and the beginnings of real trouble between the other two, a security guard named Carly (Witt) and Kent (Gehlfuss), a typical Labute-like sexist animal with good looks and charm and bullshit to spare.

By the time the story is concluded, these four (and the audience) have really been put through the wringer, but with all kinds of surprising drillings and exposures brought to light. We’re all hurting and scared and carrying a lot of weight on our backs, but some of us are….what, luckier? More determined? Hungrier? Smarter or at least less dumb? Everyone is walking around with limps and bruises, that’s for sure.

The four characters each have a four- or five-minute soliloquy moment, standing under a spotlight, pouring it all out. Tamblyn told me last night that the Broadway show didn’t have this aspect. Or it did at first and then it didn’t. I thought the shows I saw in ’09 had the damn soliloquies, but Tamblyn planted doubts. What the hell, it was five years ago. I know that the NYC performances I saw killed like nothing I’d seen in a long time. I also know that I’d like to go back and see the current Reasons To Be Pretty again. Maybe I will. It’s on for another two and a half…actually, three weeks. Three more weekends, I mean.

Shawn Hatosy, Amber Tamblyn in Randall Arney’s production of Neil Labute’s Reasons To Be Pretty.