I Love You Just the Way You Aren't: A Review of 'The Shape of Things

It's the many meanings of this attempt — to shape a lover's life, to make him over in a preconceived way — that's the subject of The Shape of Things, Neil LaBute's partly satisfying play, co-produced by Stageworks and Gorilla Theatre. The character who wants to do the shaping in this case is an art student named Evelyn (Jessica Schneider) and the object of her attention is nerdy English student Adam (Eric Loperena — and the Adam and Eve reference doesn't go much further than character names).

At the start of their relationship, there appears to be nothing between them but simple attraction — though Evelyn does immediately suggest to Adam that he wear his hair differently. A short time later Adam is taking off pounds at Evelyn's behest, trading in his glasses for contact lenses, working out and adopting new fashions. He doesn't understand why Evelyn likes him — "I'm not anything," he tells her — but soon they're sharing a bed and recording their sex on Evelyn's video camera.

And the makeover eventually moves to a new level: Evelyn next persuades Adam to have his nose "shaved" by a cosmetic surgeon. Finally, in a really stunning few minutes of theater, Evelyn confesses her reasons for changing Adam so completely, and we're forced to re-evaluate virtually everything we've witnessed. It's this side of the play's plot, climaxing with Evelyn's admission, that's brilliant and ambiguous and well worth pondering. If this were all there was to The Shape of Things, it would be a powerful play.

But there's another couple in the play, and their existence tends to undermine the theme carried by Adam and Evelyn. Phillip (Matt Lunsford) and Jenny (Amy Gray) are longtime friends of Adam who are about to be married. Phillip is short-tempered and suspicious by nature; Jenny is rather sweet and unassuming. There's a bit of a subplot involving a sexual encounter between Adam and Jenny — neither seems to have planned it — and there's an interesting scene wherein Adam lies to Phil about the nose job he's just had.

But from their first entrance to their last, it's never clear why these two characters are in the play at all and what relation (if any) they have to the dominant Adam-and-Evelyn story. True, there's a suspicion of counterpoint when Phillip and Jenny's relationship deteriorates; but that liaison never seemed particularly durable in the first place, and its decay is not fully explained. And when a subplot doesn't enhance a main plot, there's only one alternative effect: to weaken and undercut. Which is just what the Phillip and Jenny segments do.

There's nothing weak about the acting in the show, though. Best of all is Schneider, who as Evelyn truly commands the Gorilla stage. Schneider's Evelyn is ballsy, domineering, at times cruel. She dominates Adam from the first moment they meet and uses sex as the most available, most dependable of instruments. Also top-notch is Lunsford as bad-tempered Phillip. The last time I saw Lunsford was when he played the Gentleman Caller in Tennessee Williams' Glass Menagerie, also at Gorilla Theatre. He played that role like an All-American quarterback in street clothes; he plays this one like that quarterback's nasty twin brother, just back from a cockfight. (He really excels at a LaBute specialty: a male raging at a female acquaintance.)

Loperena as Adam is convincingly nerdy when the play begins; but he fails to convince us of his transformation, with Evelyn's help, into a more dashing, more self-assured individual. Finally, Gray as Jenny is credibly shy, a bit of a wallflower; we can't help but like her and wish her well (which means, no Phillip). Rosemary Orlando's direction keeps the action moving smoothly, and Robin New's contemporary costumes are always just right for the four characters.

Now, about the set: Forgive me if I go off on a little tangent here, but it's been building in me for months. Is Stageworks competing for a Most Consistently Mediocre Sets award? In production after production, Stageworks has treated the set as if it made no real difference in our experience of a play, as if a couple chairs and a side table were all we needed to feel transported to another time and place.

For me, this delinquency peaked a few months ago in Waiting for Godot. Here was a play that demanded nothing more than a country road and one solitary tree — and there was nothing to suggest a road, and instead of the tree there was a light bulb on a pole. Not even the tree? And how many times can a couple of mismatched chairs on a bare stage try to pass for a modern interior? In fact, that's what you'll find at Gorilla Theatre for The Shape of Things: the usual mismatched chairs, the otherwise empty stage and a few odd props to suggest new scenes. Please, someone convince Stageworks of the importance, the real importance, of visually pleasing, conceptually relevant sets! Please, someone! And soon!

All right. I've got that off my chest now.

As for The Shape of Things: This is provocative theater, even with its mostly irrelevant second couple.

See it for a new look on an old subject: the art of mate-shaping. And be prepared for a finale that'll have you thinking long into the evening.

Contact performing arts critic Mark E. Leib at mark.leib@weekly planet.com or call 813-248-8888, ext. 305.


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