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A CurtainUp Review
The Shape of Things

LaBute's The Shape Of Things Revisitedby Brian Clover

Editor's Note: This is our third visit to this play. It is followed by my review of the New York Off-Broadway production, and below that the original London review. e.s.

We've had Albee's take on Sophocles and now it's Neil LaBute's update of Shaw's Pygmalion. What next, Tarantino's Importance of Being Earnest? If that's half as good as The Shape of Things (now revived at the New Ambassadors under the direction of Julian Webber) it would be worth seeing.

We see Evelyn meeting Adam. Within minutes LaBute has alerted us to the multiple meanings of the title: form, design, art, sex "things" and the possibility of a moral order. He also shows us the seed from which the drama of their relationship will grow. Evelyn, wiser, smarter, more confident and determined than the amiable Adam, sets out to see how far she can change him. But is it for the better, and does even she have any idea how her efforts will turn out?

The Shape of Things develops through a series of short scenes against a spare, clever, fluid and suggestive set. (Although this set, by Simon Higlett, is a little simplified from the Almeida production and the music links are now by Fraternity, rather than Smashing Pumpkins.) It would still be wrong to give away the end.

The new cast is excellent. Alicia Witt is compelling as Evelyn, the benign dominatrix, equally convincing as frank girlfriend or patronising academic, even suggesting a touch of something that might be remorse for what she has done. Enzo Cilenti is a believable as the young nerd who knows his Wilde from his Kafka, on his way to becoming an unsuccessful Woody Allen until Evelyn throws the switches on his life. James Murray as friend Phillip is perhaps too much of a dude to be as straight as the text suggests, although he does convey the pain of one man losing another as a friend. Sienna Guillory looks more like the conventional small-town girl, out of her depth when faced with Evelyn's corrosive sophistication.

However, all excel at the quick fire dialogue that LaBute has written for them. But do all young white Americans really talk in this Friends-ified manner, their quips rallying faster than a Wimbledon Final? Or is LaBute making a point about the convergence of language styles? If not, he does have many other points to make, not least of which is the importance of truth in relationships and in art. Evelyn preaches both, but her relativism allows her to be a monster as an artist and a lover. But then, as we survey the closing display we realise her exhibits parallel the scenes we have be watching all this time. Art may be made by monsters, but what about the audience who enjoys it? Clever, uncomfortable and brilliantly staged, The Shape of Things leaves the audience with much to talk about.

This production is directed by Julian Webber an stars Alicia Witt, : Enzo Cilenti, Sienna Guillory, James Murray
Designer: Simon Higlett
Lighting Designer: Adam Silverman
Sound: Richard Price
Music: Fraternity
Reviewed by Brian Clover based on 18th May 2004 Performance at the New Ambassadors Theatre, West Street, London WC2

The Shape Of Things Moves from London to New York

Paul Rudd & Rachel Weitsz
Rachel Weisz & Paul Rudd
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Neil La Bute's The Shape of Things, about the cruel games a more powerful partner can play with a smitten weaker one, had a successful run in London's West End. It has arrived for a limited stay in midtown Manhattan at the Off-Broadway Promenade with the director, actors and designers in place. The main update in the credits below are the theater address and performance schedule.

The story is as deliberately and disturbingly attention grabbing as ever. The performances remain outstanding. Paul Rudd is downright amazing in the things he does to make us accept his Adam as shapeless lump, the loser who doesn't ever get the pretty girl -- a shy college boy ripe to be seduced and transformed by the play's Eve, here called Evelyn. (Just in case you miss the metaphoric implications of the name, there's a scene when Eve bites into a juicy red apple). Rachel Weisz is properly chilling as the villain of the piece and her outfits, courtesy of Lynette Meyer, are the ultimate in chic à la thrift shop boutiques -- a dress and coat in clashing greens and prints being particularly memorable. Gretchen Mol and Frederick Weller are no mere secondary characters but add to the complications of relationships and issues of control and art that LaBute addresses.

The multi-purpose set fits the Promenade's stage well. I would have been happy if the transfer had eliminated or at least toned down and shortened the too long, too loud Smashing Pumpkins musical pauses in between scenes. Having been forwarned I had a tissue ready to tuck in my ear each time the rather bizarre blue Viennese curtain descended. In the interest of fairness, I should say that for the many who, like me, covered their ears, there was also a large contingent of audience members who blissfully bobbed their heads up and down and rocked with the music.

As per the original review, I won't go into details about the ending. However, I won't be spoiling any surprises when I say it relates to Evelyn's master's thesis. If you pay attention, it won't come as a surprise at all, though you do need to suspend belief about the likelihood of a supervising professor giving her a go-ahead for her work. The momentum, as mentioned in the original review builds slowly, but everything leading up to the climax is a clue towards its inevitability.

Four months, an ocean and a shattering event separate Lizzie Loveridge's London viewing of La Bute's play and mine. As the playwright himself wrote in an article entitled "With a New Play Opening In a New, Scarier World" (NYTimes, 10/07/01), a play dealing with "a terrorist, albeit a cultural terrorist" that was once deemed "just a laugh-riot and thought-provoking" has become "completely efficacious to our lives today." LaBute's non-puffing puff piece to promote his show became more pertinent than ever on the evening I went to see it -- the same day that the NBC and NYTimes buildings were evacuated as a result of a biological terrorist scare. Still, the theater was filled with people determined to go on with our lives.

I don't think The Shape of Things was ever an earth-shaking thought provoker. Seen as a well-written, finely staged and acted relationship drama, it works in taking your mind off more important real events -- and escaping for a couple of hours to a world when all this did matter.

Footnote: The play's run is finite, but it will live on as a film to be adapted and directed by Neil LaBute and with Gretchen Mol, Paul Rudd, Frederick Weller and Rachel Weisz slated to reprise their roles. -- Elyse Sommer

This production stars Rachel Weisz, Paul Rudd,: Frederick Weller and Gretchen Mol
Set Design: Giles Cadle
Costume: Lynetter Meyer
Lighting Design: James Vermeulen (Mark Henderson in London)
Sound: Fergus O'Hare
Promenade Theatre, 2162 Broadway (at 76th St),239-6200
8/26/01-1/06/02. Opening October 10th. Tue-Sat @ 8 pm, Wed & Sat @ 2 pm, Sun @ 3pm $20-$85

---Our Original London Review- by Lizzie Loveridge

Art is anything I can't do. --
--- Neil LaBute

After last year's production of the award winning Bash (see link below) at the Almeida, Neil LaBute's new play The Shape of Things, which the author directs, is a "must-see". The play continues LaBute's theme of what lies beneath the surface of contemporary America but here in the context of "the relationship".

LaBute also raises the question of "What is Art?" with the current trend of installations replacing more traditional forms of art like painting and sculpture. The one problem with watching this playwright's work is that we are always waiting for the unpleasant, the malignant twist, the vicious kick in the teeth, so we know that what we are watching on the surface is a mask. Eight-tenths of it is expended in setting up the denouement, which is where the discussion of the serious issues starts to take place. This means that only a fifth of the play can be dedicated to the questions that you will want to react to and mull over -- our obsession with the surface of people, their appearance, the meaning of art.

Set on a provincial American campus, zany art student Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) meets geeky English literature major Adam (Paul Rudd). She seduces him, introducing him to a world of sex and intimacy he has only dreamt of. He changes his image to please her and over a period of time he becomes more popular as others see his desirability. He changes his behaviour, diet, clothing, lifestyle and even his nose. Adam's conventional room mate Phillip (Frederick Weller) argues with Evelyn's politics and dislikes, and the change in Adam. However, his fiancée, Jenny (Gretchen Mol) finds Adam really attractive which leads to an Adam and Jenny sexual encounter. Phillip and Evelyn retaliate with their own fling and, at Evelyn's request, Adam agrees not to see either Phillip or Jenny again. The final scenes are shocking and I am not going to give away LaBute'' suspenseful ending here although it is hard to discuss the play in its full depth without so doing.

The dialogue is finely tuned with nothing superfluous but the action builds very slowly. There are super performances from the whole cast. Weisz's misty eyed, "little girl lost" look belies that she is a sophisticated, independent artist. She has great stage presence. Her wardrobe too is amazing, an eclectic mix of colour, fabric, style and accessories. We see Paul Rudd as Adam gaining in confidence, surprising himself at his own luck in winning Evelyn and yet, endangering his relationship with her to try out his new pulling power. Frederick Weller's Phillip is the unpleasant side of small town mentality, instinctively unhappy about his friend's transformation. Gretchen Mol's Jenny is the perfect sweet-natured pretty blonde.

The set is a clever construction of blue flaps to change scenes with windows and doors and alcoves from coffee shop to museum to Italian restaurant to doctor's waiting room and more. One of LaBute's directorial choices is to darken the stage at each of the almost a dozen scene changes and blast us with loud music, usually from The Smashing Pumpkins. The scene in the children's playground in the park, with real swings where Adam and Evelyn almost fall off the hobby horses as they kiss, is particularly appealing but it is the last two scenes which really stand out.

The play runs through without an interval at two hours which is just about bearable on the Almeida's unsprung seats in their temporary home at King's Cross.

In the final analysis The Shape of Things is not as forceful or as violent as Bash. However, in its own way it is chilling and has much to say about a society in which an increasing numbers of young people suffer from anorexia and parents give their children cosmetic surgery for their sixteenth birthday. Bravo LaBute!


London review based on 30th May 2001 performance at the Almeida at King's Cross, Omega Place off Caledonian Road London N1 9DR

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