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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Lacerating and Thought Provoking The Shape of Things in New Jersey Professional Premiere

The Shape of Things
Avery Clark and Erika Sheffer
Neil LaBute's 2001 cautionary play, The Shape of Things, is currently having its New Jersey professional premiere at Premiere Stages on the campus of Kean University in Union. There are only two things that a serious theatergoer need know. The first is that The Shape of Things provides clear proof that Neil LaBute is a kick ass writer with a gift for sharp, natural sounding, thought-provoking dialogue, and the ability to employ it to deliver visceral body blows to the audience. The second is that the play is receiving a low key, always on key, naturalistic performance which seems to make the best possible case for it.

Evelyn (Erica Sheffer) and Adam (Avery Clark) attend the small Midwestern Mercy College where the spirited and aggressive Evelyn is a graduate art student working on her thesis project, and Adam is a nerdy undergraduate. They meet funny (in both the odd and ha-ha senses). Adam is impressed and captivated with her. Especially so, when, contrary to expectations born of his past experience with the opposite sex, Evelyn responds positively to him. Evelyn skillfully and subtly leads Adam away from his nerdiness. His efforts to retain her interest lead him to eat better and lose weight, acquire a tattoo, replace his glasses with contact lenses, sharpen up his wardrobe, lose behavioral inhibitions, and even have plastic surgery solely for cosmetic reasons. Evelyn even pushes him to end his relationship with his best friend and former roommate Philip (David Arsenault) and the latter's steady Jenny (Cathryn Hardy).

In retrospect, the deliciously twisty plot strains credulity. However, the sharp, natural-sounding dialogue as performed here by four actors who appear to completely embody their roles, holds any credibility issues at bay. As the self-justifying and strong-willed Evelyn, Erika Sheffer had this reviewer's blood boiling. Sheffer accurately conveys the charm with which a smart, strong-willed woman can manipulate a male conquest without shedding the underlying steely coldness of such a persona. Clearly, there is more than a hint of misogyny in that statement, but it accurately describes the role, Sheffer's performance, and observed real life equivalents.

Avery Clark smoothly and believably undergoes a transformation both in appearance and personality over the course of the play. Clark allows us to feel Adam's pain with a restrained performance which remains understated almost all the way through. David Arsenault's Philip is appropriately clueless, immature and combative. Cathryn Hardy completes the naturalistic quartet of performers. Her Jenny always holds our interest as she tries to thread her way through her relationships with the others.

At an hour and forty minutes or so, the one act The Shape of Things is somewhat discursive and could benefit from some tightening. Director Ted Sluberski has likely made the right decision in downplaying any histrionics here. By allowing the play to speak for itself, Sluberski enables us to see its underlying truths and the social and moral issues inherent in LaBute's artfully contrived work. The denouement may well hit home with fuller force because of his approach.

Karen Lee Hart has designed excellent costumes which significantly abet the character design of the author and director. In a variety of costumes for Evelyn, Hart gives us a visualization of her artistic, slightly bohemian and counterculture style. Similarly, the costumes for Adam abet the smoothness of his evening long transition. The scenic design by Bill Motyka is semi-abstract despite the naturalistic performance. Mostly in shades of gray, it is light, flexible, unobtrusive. And it gets the job done

The Shape of Things put me in mind of Mamet's Oleanna . However, despite similarities between Mamet and LaBute, each has his own distinctive voice. While some will find The Shape of Things to be exploitative and misogynistic, others will see it as a morality play about human nature and social behavior, and our obsession with appearance. In either event, The Shape of Things is theatrical and thought provoking, and well worth your time and attention.

The Shape of Things continues performances (Thursday - Saturday 8 p.m./ Sun. 2 p.m.) through September 17, 2006 at the Premiere Stages Wilkins Theatre on the campus of Kean University, 1000 Morris Avenue, Union, NJ 07083. Box office: 908-7377469; online: www.kean.edu/premierestages.

The Shape of Things by Neil LaBute; directed by Ted Sluberski

Cast
Evelyn…………….ERIKA SHEFFER
Adam……………….AVERY CLARK
Jenny…………...CATHRYN HARDY
Philip…………DAVID ARSENAULT


Photo: Mike Peters


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- Bob Rendell



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