Neil LaBute writes plays that are insidiously creepy. They are discomforting, challenging and, quite frankly, they scare me. The playwright has a true gift for mixing up provocative topics, moral conflict and frighteningly real dialogue into an evening of theater that titillates and frustrates long after the curtain falls.
In his play “The Shape of Things,” (the first in the author’s “The Beauty Plays” trilogy) LaBute tackles big ideas: our society’s preoccupation with image, the thin line that divides provocation and simple attention seeking, and the relationship between morality and art.
This is a compelling landscape to travel and LaBute is well-prepared. The dialogue is sharp and brutally honest. His characters’ behaviors are appalling and yet very real. The questions raised and presented have no simple answers.
’The Shape of Things’
WHERE: Albany Civic Theater, 235 Second Ave., Albany
WHEN: Through Nov. 18
HOW MUCH: $15
MORE INFO: 462-1297
The play takes place in and around the campus at a small liberal arts college. Evelyn (Laura Murphy) is beginning work on her graduate art project. She picks up the socially awkward and frumpy Adam (Ian LaChance) in an off-campus museum where he works part-time as a security guard and she is about to paint a graffiti penis on a sculpture.
With Evelyn’s influence and affection, Adams begins to change. He becomes a leaner, sexier, better-dressed figure. People begin to notice and the young man’s self-esteem emerges. So much so that it inspires him to ignite the affection of his ex-classmate Jenny (Rhiannon Antico), an unfortunate action, as she is about to marry his best friend Phillip (Tom Templeton).
To reveal more would ruin the play’s visceral punch. But it is safe to say that the ending of this morality tale of a beauty makeover gone wrong has more in common with Shelley than Shaw.
Director Aaron Holbritter has assembled a strong cast able to artfully balance the humor and the vitriol. LaChance captures Adam’s silent joy as he transforms from clueless dweeb into the societal beauty norm with an earnestness that neither cloys or rings false.
Templeton, as the rakish Phillip, simply pops and snarls with LaChance in a scene of secrets shared, and Antico finds just the right bit of remorse in the recklessness of Jenny’s actions.
Murphy’s approach to the “art terrorist” Evelyn conveys all the intent required, but not enough of the necessary seduction, allowing a glimpse of the “end-of-play-twist” much too soon.
The drawback to this production is its laconic approach. The slow set changes stall and sputter momentum. The pace of the piece should be like LaBute’s script — swift and disorienting.
This play is divisive. Not just among members of the audience, but inside oneself. As soon as your rage ebbs from loudly damning Evelyn’s morality, silence falls and your brain flips with guilt and anger as you find yourself in an unexpected rush of excitement to defend what she did in the name of art and truth. It perplexes and frustrates — and it’s mighty good theater.
It is not easy to watch. Truth seldom is.