More than once during Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things, I heard a disgusted gasp from someone in the audience. Funny thing is, that gasp was usually followed by a nervous titter or sometimes an all-out guffaw. LaBute, known for being one of theater’s bad boy playwrights, specializes in crafting plays about pretty people doing and saying ugly things to each other. The Shape of Things is the first in a trio of LaBute works known as “The Beauty Plays,” three plays unrelated in character and plot but similar in theme (Fat Pig and reasons to be pretty round out the group.) The Dallas Theater Center will will run all three in repertory at the Wyly Theatre, the first time a company has attempted to do so.
For the first offering in the series, director Matthew Gray presents the audience with the boy-meets-girl tale of Adam and Evelyn. Adam, a schlubby college student/part-time security guard at the campus’s art gallery, first encounters the sexy and supremely confident art student Evelyn as she’s contemplating vandalism to a sculpture. “You stepped over the line,” Adam tells her, referring to the security rope designed to keep patrons at a comfortable distance. Nearly every line of dialogue LaBute writes is a double entandre, and as the play progresses the words darkly morph into double-edged swords.
Evelyn herself begins altering Adam. As his dorky glasses, frumpy clothes, and soft paunch start to disappear, his friends Jenny and Philip take notice, periodically asking, “What’s happened to you?” What’s happened is Evelyn, a staunch believer in brutal honesty and expert manipulation—she even convinces Adam to get a nose job. SMU graduate student Abbey Siegworth clearly relishes pulling the strings as Evelyn, delivering her lines with girlish coquettishness or icy malevolence as the script demands. Adam isn’t as showy a character, yet Steven Walters makes a solid transformation from head-ducking, shuffling nerd to a slightly cocky young man dizzy with first love.
As is often the case, the two supporting characters are full of quirks, but instead of making them mere window dressing, newly engaged Jenny and Philip provide nearly as much drama as the main couple. Lee Trull is boorish, obnoxious, and deliciously smarmy as Philip, Adam’s former roommate and supposed best friend. Also an MFA acting candidate at SMU, Aleisha Force gives real sympathy to the fussy Jenny, a girl over her head in these grownup games.
Performances for all three plays take place in the intimate Studio Theatre space, a definite challenge for scenic designer Donna Marquet and lighting designer Driscoll Otto. To help conserve space and minimize setup time, two long rolls of fabric hanging from the ceiling successfully mask furniture and convey all settings through montages of still photographs. Combined with the snappy jazz music that plays during scene changes, the overall effect is so fresh and successful a fully constructed set might never seem necessary again.
As its trilogy’s name indicates, The Shape of Things is concerned with beauty: what it means, why it’s important, what its presence of lack thereof can do to a person’s perception of themselves and others. But right up there with beauty is a discussion on art. Is it relevant, why is it so subjective, and perhaps most chillingly, what can we get away with when we call it art?
Photo: Steven Walters and Abbey Siegworth (Photo: Brandon Thibodeaux)