In the Company of Bad
When a play by Neil LaBute hits town, any town, the specifics of the production usually take a back seat to the force of the writer's personality. LaBute's plays and films are biting, challenging, often cruel -- and by comparison, most other scripts seem bland and polite. His debut film In the Company of Men, which he adapted and directed from his stage play, had to do with the cruel games two businessmen play on a cheerful deaf woman. His second, also drawing from his stage work, Your Friends and Neighbors, was another tale of ruthless power and twisted revenge. Acknowledging his debt to the scabrous comedies of the English Restoration, LaBute makes war on the bland and the polite and when the smoke clears, the scene is never pretty and justice is rarely done.
Case in point is The Shape of Things, a clever, subtle exercise in artful cruelty now in its Florida premiere at GableStage. Adam (Terrell Hardcastle) is a nerdy, out-of-shape literature major at a small college in a conservative Midwestern town. To make ends meet he works at several jobs, one being a guard at a local art museum. Just as his shift ends one day he encounters Evelyn (Claire Tyler), an enticing, brainy art theory grad student who has just stepped over the velvet ropes of a sculpture intent on defacing it with spray paint. Adam is charged with maintaining order, but she maintains her goal is a liberating act of creativity. Adam soldiers on, intent on stopping vandalism, but before he knows it, he's totally smitten by anarchic, free-spirited Evelyn. Instead of throwing her out he asks for her phone number, and she complies by spray-painting it on the inside of his overcoat.
That's a mighty peculiar way to start a romance, but then Evelyn's a mighty peculiar gal. She turns him on to some wild sex and videotapes their carnal acrobatics. He's taken aback but secretly thrilled. Soon she has him working out, shedding pounds, gaining a flashier wardrobe and haircut, and assuming a more assertive man-about-town stance. He even agrees to a minor nose job at her urging. His metamorphosis is not lost on his brash, bossy friend Phillip (Laif Gilbertson) or Phillip's fiancée, Jenny (Autumn Horne), who happens to be Adam's erstwhile flame, a girl he adored from afar but could never approach for lack of courage.
The new-model Adam takes Evelyn to meet Phillip and Jenny, as the latter plan their wedding. Suddenly a very uncomfortable four-way dance begins. For starters Phillip and Evelyn loathe one another. Worse, Jenny and Adam like one another -- which is not only terribly inconvenient, but it's clear to both that they, two shy, polite people, are made for each other. They fight it for a time, but their attraction leads to a kiss and that leads to, well, suffice it to say that the story could turn ugly if Evelyn finds out, and she does and it does.
All the while Adam finds he has to lie and then lie and lie some more just to keep up appearances. The result is a mordantly funny stage noir, as the hapless Adam finds that Evelyn is an Eve with more than a little evil in her.
Like all of LaBute's work, The Shape of Things is an unsettling blend of ferocity, humor, sex, and ideas; in other words, precisely the sort of show that's right up GableStage's alley. Joe Adler directs with his usual clarity of staging and trust in his acting ensemble. The young company brings together some GableStage veterans with some newcomers. Laif Gilbertson does well as the manipulative, edgy Phillip. As Adam, Hardcastle clearly delineates Adam's romantic dilemmas and his ensuing ethical ones. So, too, does Horne as Jenny, a sweet, ordinary young woman whose struggle between her innate propriety and her sudden desire for Adam puts her into a panic. All three get a workout as the story mixes and matches them in a series of two-character scenes.
But as Evelyn, Tyler seems out of step with the rest of the ensemble. Tyler, so successful as the quirky android in Comic Potential at the Actors Playhouse, seems unwilling or unable to shake that character, playing Evelyn with the same physicality and vocal inflections, the same blank stare, that seems at decided odds with the tightly wound, intellectually superior personality Evelyn is revealed to be. Sure, this might be Evelyn's intended disguise, but if so, Tyler never gets down to what may be going on underneath. While it is certainly true that LaBute is unconcerned with what motivates his characters to behave the way they do, nevertheless Tyler's take seems rather simplistic, and what could and probably should be a tour de force performance feels more competent than compelling.
Adler's regular production team provides its usual solid design support. Jeff Quinn's colorful set, a series of sliding screens that echo Mondrian's geometric paintings, are simple and effective. The same can be said of Daniela Schwimmer's idiosyncratic, character-revealing costumes, though Adam's sartorial transformation seems less striking than the text suggests.
While the production merits praise, it's the writer's rush of ideas and ethical dilemmas that makes the biggest impact, a wholly original voice in the modern theater (and in film, for that matter). LaBute's own story is highly original, too. Born in Detroit, raised in Spokane, he ended up going to college as a non-Mormon at predominately Mormon Brigham Young University. There he became a Mormon and remains one today, living with his wife and children in Indiana. It's unclear from precisely where LaBute draws his inspiration, but his enduring fascination with the ugly impulses that bubble up beneath social niceties, his middle American characters, and his lack of pat answers remain his signature preoccupations.
LaBute takes a long, hard look at evil, how it works its power and how human beings make little bargains with it every day. His central characters are usually likable, flawed nobodies who never think they will be called to make major ethical choices in the course of their daily lives. But he seems to remind us over and over that it's the little choices that lead up to big ones. Most of American writing follows the Hollywood party line, that people may err but recognizing one's fault leads to redemption. LaBute isn't interested in redemption or even much explanation. People do cruel things to one another and sometimes the wrong people pay the price. To LaBute that's the American way because that's the way of the world.
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