The Shape of Thingsby Neil LaBute. Directed by Matthew T. Teichner. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"A big sorta installation thingee"
Jerry Greene and Leah Marie Parker in rehearsal; photo:John Kickery of Kickery Kreative Photography
I make a habit of never reading preview articles when I'm reviewing a play, especially a play I do not know. I would suggest that if you are planning to see this Town Players production of Neil LaBute's play, "The Shape of Things"that you follow my model and not read this review if you don't already know the work. Too much will be revealed in the paragraphs below and too much may be said about my reactions to the piece. You really don't want to know. . . .
David Mamet's plays can be downright pornographic in their content, intent and subtext. LaBute is not very far removed from the Mamet model. He is a writer who seems happy with the ideals of alienation and separation from gender realities. About twenty minutes into this play he quotes George Bernard Shaw's play "Pygmalion" and that is the major clue to his intentions in this work. He has written a reverse take on Shaw's famous play (also the musical "My Fair Lady" for those who don't already know) in which his common clay is a 22 year old college student, a nerd and a jerk and an inept male who cannot be assertive, self-assured or at ease with women.
LaBute pits his two protagonists against one another in a game where sex, intimidation, modulation, corroboration, concupiscence and sex overwhelm these participants in a world where artifice and Art are confused for one another. He names his principals, Adam and Evelyn, which should tell you all you need to know about them. Edenists become hedonists before expulsion from a garden where no one smells the roses, and the snake is tattooed and virginity of the soul is the only lost virtue. And nothing suffers more than ART and its reputation for elevating the soul.
I find it interesting that LaBute converted to the Church of Latter Day Saints - the Mormons - and was eventually spurned by them for his views and his writing. He has written and/or directed more than three dozen films since In the Company of Men in 1997 and twenty-five plays since 1989's Filthy Talk for Troubled Times. There are also three TV series credited to his name. Reviewing this career I find it fascinating that I've only seen three of his works before now - I've certainly read and heard his name before this, and as much as I love all three formats, I do not - after seeing this production - feel inclined to seek out much more of his work.
As Evelyn, Leah Marie Parker has a devil of a role. She is cool, indifferent and demanding in the best of ways. She transforms Evelyn into a compelling sort of bitch. Her work in this role is really something to see.
Adam is undertaken by Jerry Greene and while he is initially a fumbling, bumbling, grumbler who cannot, seemingly, "get it up" he transforms under Parker's Evelyn, into a daring, dashing, diamond in the rough sort of guy and the actor's work here, enduring the long change, is wonderful to watch.
His best friend, Phillip, is unevenly played by Thomas Suski who feels too old for the role as written and directed. Phillip is an emotionally unstable early twenties guy who seems to have never gotten out of his teen years emotionally - he wants to get married in a tank underwater because he enjoys scuba diving. Suski has fine moments but the role is a trap and this actor constantly gets his ankle snapped by those iron jaws that stop him in his tracks.
His fiance, Jenny, was played on opening night by Alanna Bassett who was fine. She is sharing the role during this short run with Dana Grieb who plays the part during its second weekend.
I'm not sure what director Matthew T. Teichner was going for in this production. The shallow laughs in the first half of the play gradually slip away into the maudlin mulings of this foursome. The a-vista scene changes are awkward and unappealing to watch. The background noises that accompany them add little to our sense of place or time. The director's own lighting design adds nothing to the emotional impact of the play, additionally revealing nothing about the reality of day/night/outdoor/indoor or anything else. The costumes only partially reveal change and growth of these characters, with Evelyn coming off best.
What amazes me most about this production is how well the actors do with their hideous characters. What is compelling here is watching manipulation, witnessing growth and change and discovering how little we alter from our basic selves for the most part. While Evelyn is not the girl we imagine her to be, it is Adam who finds growth, uncomfortable a process as it is, while his pals remain the same disaffected people they were at the beginning. If this is a portrait of people in real life, then real life needs an overhaul. Maybe that's what LaBute is telling us. I just don't know.
The Shape of Things plays weekends through March 20 at the Whitney Center for the Arts on Wendell Avenue in Pittsfield, MA. This Town Players of Pittsfield production can be found at www.townplayers.org and tickets may be booked through the website.