SpeakEasy Stage Company presents the New England premiere of Neil LaBute's play The Shape of Things at the Boston Center for the Arts now through February 22, 2003. The engaging young cast under the able guidance of director Paul Melone does the best they can with a script that plays more like it was written for the screen.
Despite an attractive, flexible set by designer Paul Theriault, appropriate original music by Rick Brenner and well-choreographed movements, the story goes on hold as the setting shifts for each and every scene and we wait for the actors to jump in and out of costume.
And to fully appreciate how offbeat she truly is, we would also be helped by seeing Evelyn (Laura Latreille) set off against the entire population of the conservative midwestern college town where the story takes place. On stage we only see her hold over Adam, his straight arrow roommate (Walter Belenky) and the roommate's immature fiancÚ (Stacy Fischer.)
The Shape of Things had its world premiere in London in May of 2001, followed a few months later by a run at the Promenade Theatre in New York before being transferred to film with the original cast (Paul Rudd, Rachel Weisz, Gretchen Mol and Frederick Weller) and writer/director LaBute still intact. By all accounts, the most striking difference in the film version (screened at The Sundance Film Festival and slated to open this spring) is the substitution of Elvis Costello's music for The Smashing Pumpkins', which some reviewers and audience members didn't care for when played at ear-splitting volume during the scene breaks in the original production.
Best known for the controversial subject matter of his films In the Company of Men and Friends and Neighbors, LaBute's most recent theatrical offering, The Mercy Seat, confirmed that his penchant for exposing the not-very-nice-side of human behavior continues. By most accounts of the Manhattan premiere (a limited engagement starring Sigourney Weaver and Liev Schreiber), it was a welcome though provocative and unflinching addition to the post-9/11 response.
The Shape of Things, by comparison, is pretty tame. While purporting to raise issues about important ideas like "art" and "truth," it basically offers a quirky twist on the Eliza Doolittle/ Professor Higgins relationship. The quirkiness comes from the unwitting subject, in this case, being the male and the operative doing the transformation, the female. It's also worth noting that in Shaw's play, the audience is in on everything. At first Eliza doesn't know what's going on, and then in the end, after a number of twists and turns, the joke is really on Higgins.
The effect of LaBute's play depends on keeping everyone in the dark, audience included. With such a straightforward naturalistic presentation, however, once all is revealed, we need everything to add up. Given the limited financial means of these characters and the confines of the educational institution where the project unfolds, the premise and some of the events aren't entirely plausible and that doesn't help the case for "art" or "truth."
What LaBute might have pursued with more vengeance is the subtext of low self-esteem and the willingness to subject oneself, at all costs, to the pursuit of "desirability" and "beauty" foisted on us by marketing and peer pressure. Perhaps, if Adam's physical transformation is more obvious and Evelyn's eccentricities more striking, the film will bring that more to the forefront.
The Shape of Things is presented by The SpeakEasy Stage Company now through February 22nd at the Boston Center for the Arts: BCA Theatre, 539 Tremont St., Boston. Performance schedule: Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays at 8 PM; Saturdays at 4 PM & 8 PM; Sundays at 7 PM. Box office phone: 617 426-2787. There is a $15 student rush, one hour before performance, at the door only, subject to availability.