Playwright Neil LaBute has long been a controversial figure because of the extreme characterizations and themes in his work. His name would not generally be associated with the word “regular.” But that’s the word he chose to get the relationship wrecking ball swinging in his “Reasons to Be Pretty,” a gripping production of which is now running at Mad Horse Theatre.

The author is known for his talent in exposing the dangers hidden beneath the language of everyday life. So, when a young woman in this 2008 play goes into a rage after she learns that her boyfriend has referred to her looks as “regular,” it’s soon clear that there’s more there than can be easily resolved.

Marie Stewart-Harmon and Jake Cote as Steph and Greg. Photo by Craig Robinson

The initial confrontation is formidable, with Steph, played by Marie Stewart-Harmon, in boyfriend Greg’s face as the play opens. An obscenity-laced harangue devolves into an unbroken stream of obscene language as words fail her and the possibility of an amicable resolution fades.

Stewart-Harmon starts with a bracing screech but later compellingly traverses her character’s journey from pure flailing toward a sort of forgiving, though the force of her disquiet hangs in the air. Steph asserts she must “protect what I have.”

Greg, played by Jake Cote, is an affable, working-class guy with an intellectual bent who tries to smooth things over by offering a combination of puzzled apology and quick wit. Cote is exceptionally good in delivering Greg’s soft-spoken humor as the young man attempts to calm things down while also avoiding some hard truths.

Add to the mix the emerging troubles of Greg’s sexually wandering co-worker and pal Kent, played by Kelsey Anderson-Taylor, and Kent’s too easily objectified security guard wife, Carly, played by Allison McCall.

The discontents of the foursome make for a gloomy theatrical foundation. But it’s one that gradually gains light and warmth through the author’s apparent concern and the Mad Horse cast’s engaging performances.

Each character offers a telling monologue and Carly’s emphasizes the limitations of a focus on appearance when genuine communication is lost. “Beauty comes at a price,” she observes. This character’s problems may be the simplest, but perhaps for that reason, the most moving. The others earn a more measured compassion by the end.

Director Christopher Price has focused the minimally appointed production on the humanity that shines through as these conflicted characters uneasily move toward a more mature understanding.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.