Chicago Theatre Review
Cutting to the Quick
The Shape of Things – Eclectic Full Contact Theatre
Like playwrights Tom Stoppard and David Mamet, Neil LaBute loves language. His plays contain dialogue that borders on the poetic. It’s filled with rhythm and images, yet it’s brief, abrupt and conversational. It’s sound is contemporary and easy on the ear. But that’s not to say that Mr. LaBute’s dramas are casual or lighthearted. True, he infuses his plays with touches of unexpected humor, but make no mistake: this playwright delights in cutting to the quick. Like David Mamet, he writes dramas that explore gender relations, what it means to be masculine or feminine and how political correctness affects everyone. LaBute is direct, blunt, takes no prisoners and leaves both his characters and his audience devastated and breathless by the final curtain.
In the art museum of a small Midwestern liberal arts college, a young man suddenly comes upon a lovely young woman about to cross the barrier to get closer to a classical, nude male statue. Evelyn is holding a can of spray paint and, when confronted by the shy, tongue-tied Adam, working there part time as a security guard, she freely admits that she’s about to deface this great work of art. The two engage in an interesting conversation about the nature of art; then Adam leaves, since his shift has ended, hurrying off to his next part time job, but not before he has made a date with Evelyn. Thus begins a strange new relationship.
LaBute’s play is about four college students who become completely involved with each other. At one time Adam roomed with Phillip but, now living apart, they’ve still remained friends. Phillip is engaged to Jenny, a conservative young coed who used to have a crush on Adam, although he never knew it. Evelyn invades this circle of friends, inspiring a complete transformation in Adam. He begins to work out, lose weight, comb his hair differently and starts dressing with more style. The couple eventually becomes romantically involved and gradually Evelyn starts making even further demands upon her boyfriend. As we watch her cleverly manipulate the young man to the point where she’s even dictating his friends, the audience becomes suspicious. LaBute is pushing the envelope, demonstrating the lengths to which people will go for love.
The author of such noteworthy and controversial dramas as “Fat Pig,” “In the Company of Men” and his more recent “Reasons to Be Happy,” wrote this play in 2001, near the beginning of his career. It premiered in London, was given a New York production and was later turned into a 2003 film, that featured the original cast. LaBute’s two main characters are named and modeled after the world’s first couple, Adam and Eve. Whereas Eve pushed Adam into eating the forbidden fruit, Evelyn coerces this Adam into everything from rhinoplasty to relationships. This two-hour one-act is a riff on the ancient Greek makeover myth that Bernard Shaw adapted into his very popular “Pygmalion.” It might be viewed as a more realistic treatment of that power wielded by the artist as she reconstructs and revolutionizes her victim. But what’s only hinted at in Shaw’s comedy of the Cockney flower girl who turns into a lady becomes dramatic in LaBute’s hands. Adam only vaguely seems aware of Evelyn’s affect on him until the final scene. It’s then that the true realization hits the young man like a brick wall; we know then that Adam will never recover from the psychological impact of this experience.
The entire cast is very good and mostly convincing. Beautiful Michelle Annette has created an Evelyn who is in complete control of every situation in this play. She knows how to use her sparkling eyes and winning smile to best effect. With one look she’s able to charm, reduce tension and eventually get what she wants. The performance of this character could easily run the risk of being all one note or stereotypical, but the talented Ms. Annette has found the layers and nuances so necessary in making Evelyn a real, fully rounded woman.
Andy Blaustein, such an enjoyable, winning young actor in Eclectic’s “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” has a few honest moments as Adam. He physically looks the part and when he allows his natural instincts to guide him Mr. Blaustein is very good and absolutely believable. However, Katherine Siegel, who has directed this production with varying success, makes her biggest mistake in guiding or allowing Adam to be portrayed as almost a caricature. Practically everything the actor says or does screams, “Nerd.” We don’t need to be hit over the head with Adam’s geekiness. However, when this likable young actor relaxes into the role and doesn’t try to force the nebbish quality, Adam actually turns into a real, sympathetic person about whom the audience cares. It’s important that Adam be truthful and trustworthy or the play loses its impact.
Josh Leeper and Martha Reddick both make their debut with this company, turning in pleasing, realistic performances as Phillip and Jenny. The two truthfully complement each other as a couple, and they both relate well to Mr. Blaustein’s Adam. Both actors enjoy more of a challenge in his or her confrontations with Evelyn. Evelyn has a way of exposing everyone’s vulnerable spot. Michelle Annette seems to savor pecking away at Phillip, Jenny and Adam until the blood begins to form, stepping away in time to let the carnage flow.
Laura Carney’s set design makes the most of this modest space, lining the room with shroud-covered furnishings that will figure prominently in each scene. However, it’s a bit unclear that, in the end, all these pieces have remained onstage because they’ve been collected by Evelyn for her art installation. Catherine Tantillo’s costumes are nicely chosen, particularly Adam’s subtle transformational wardrobe; however, she might want to rethink Adam’s baggy-legged boxer shorts. They leave very little to the imagination.
This caustic, consequential drama about the nature of art and love offers moments of biting humor amidst LaBute’s poetic dialogue. But, as his tension-filled Pygmalion story gradually unfolds, it reveals surprise after surprise, climaxing with the artist’s creation crumbling down around her. While the cast is very good, the direction could be tightened but, as Hamlet once said, the play is the thing. And this, one of the playwright’s finest early works, can stand alongside any of this company’s best productions.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented February 5-March 6 by Eclectic Full Contact Theatre at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-935-6860.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com