Playwright Neil LaBute is not known for his optimistic depictions of human nature. His 2008 work, Reasons to Be Pretty, however, embodies a surprisingly hopeful vision even as it retains the author’s caustic wit and trademarked misanthropy. Now that the play’s regional premiere, directed by Kimberly Mohne Hill and featuring a stellar cast, is running at the San Jose Stage Company, South Bay audiences can decide for themselves whether or not Mr. LaBute is (as The New York Times put it) “making nice.”

The flawed hero of this comedy-drama is Greg (Robert Brewer), a guy who inadvertently hurts his girlfriend Steph (Halsey Varady) by saying that her face looks “regular.” To Greg, this seems like a harmless comment, but it infuriates Steph to the point of breaking up with him. Greg’s relationship with his buddy Kent (Will Springhorn Jr.) also becomes strained as the story unfolds. Kent is having an affair with a co-worker while his wife, Carly (Allison F. Finch), is pregnant, and Greg feels guilty about helping to cover it up.

•The obsession with physical appearance is a central theme in this play, as it has been in some of LaBute’s previous works. The Shape of Things, in which a girl manipulates her boyfriend into getting plastic surgery, and Fat Pig, about a man who is embarrassed to be dating an overweight woman, both delve into the pernicious effect this obsession has on society and relationships.

Reasons to be pretty has been described, fittingly, as the final part in this trilogy. Even so, it also represents a divergence from those other plays. The characters often treat each other in a cruel or callous way, but unlike The Shape of Things or Fat Pig, Reasons shows people who seem able to learn from their mistakes and become better people.

Seeing those characters brought to life at the Stage is a real treat. The scenes featuring Brewer and Varaday as the troubled couple are intense and emotionally charged. The scenes between the two male actors are even more riveting, and Springhorn’s performance as the macho, arrogant Kent is perhaps the highlight of the evening. During Saturday night’s performance, the actors occasionally stumbled over their lines, but it hardly detracted from the overall excellence of the show.

Reasons to Be Pretty
• Through Oct. 24
• The Stage, 490 S. First St., San Jose
• $20–$40