Some of the most exciting moments in the theatre occur when an audience really feels the playwright exercising his art and his craft. When the two come together in just the right proportions, they can really make the audience sit up, take notice, and question what has come before or what will come after. Such moments may be rare, but they are frequently at the essence of what makes live theatre different from every other performing art.
Such a moment occurs in the penultimate scene of The Shape of Things, Neil LaBute's new play that just opened at the Promenade Theatre. The audience, who thought they had been watching a thesis presentation on the nature of art in the modern world, suddenly learn that they are witnessing something very different indeed. Though most of the preceding hour and forty-five minutes had led up to this moment, the revealing of the final puzzle is still breathtaking to behold.
When looked at in retrospect, the scene is perhaps not that surprising. The line between subjectivity and objectivity - in such diverse concepts as truth and art - is something The Shape of Things deals with time and time again, and this scene is the play's ultimate expression of that idea. In fact, the only problem with this otherwise fine revelation is that the scenes leading up to it, and the one scene that is to follow, are hardly as worthy of consideration.
LaBute's writing is never weak, exactly, but never does it create a spark that ignites into something memorable or exciting. Its story tracking the relationship of two college students (Paul Rudd and Rachel Weisz) is mostly simplistic, with dialogue seldom more profound than a typical television show aimed at the same early-20s demographic. As in such a program, there is some drama and some humor, but a lot of fairly predictable angst and soul-searching. Though this type of writing is not always appropriate in this play - and, indeed, sometimes it appears to achieve the desired effect - when the story wants to go in more interesting, less familiar places, the writing hampers it at nearly every turn.
Since LaBute also directed, however, there is a certain cohesion that exists between the script and the show's physical production. With the help of Giles Cadle's surprising and adaptable set, James Vermeulen's lights and Lynette Meyer's straightforward, everyday costumes, LaBute moves the action along quickly, allowing clean breaks in the action between the scene changes (filled - be forewarned - with quite loud music), but always with a strong sense of forward motion. There are few seams to be found.
Less, though, can be said about the acting. Though Rudd, in the play's central role of Adam, has an easy natural quality that makes him seem like a friend you've had since childhood, he is not equally matched. Weisz, playing the dangerously artistic Evelyn to whom Adam ends up taking a liking, speaks with what sounds like a strongly affected voice, and does little to draw the audience into her character. While this may be part of the point, and while she handles her lengthy speech at the play's climax well, she drones too much of the rest of the time, and much what attracts Adam to her is never clear. Frederick Weller strains against his workmanlike role as Adam's friend, Phil, but Gretchen Mol makes her Betty - Phil's fiancee and Adam's former classmate - charmingly sweet and likable.
The remarkable revelation near the end of the play almost makes the entire experience worth it - LaBute has done that effectively. Unfortunately, despite the strength of that scene and Rudd's performance, there is relatively little shape to The Shape of Things. While it may be more acceptable in a medium such as television, onstage, The Shape of Things seems too formless.
The Shape of Things