Empty Vessel

Pity the actors forced to breathe life into this play

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis has opened its new Studio Theatre season with The Shape of Things, a nasty little opus that spouts empty generalities about such tedious topics as "the subjectivity of art" but has nothing new, original or even provocative to say.

Set on a small college campus in the Midwest, this clunky morality tale focuses on two students named Adam and Evelyn (a riff on Adam and Eve -- get it?) Adam is innocent enough till he meets Evelyn, a manipulative art major who, for some inexplicable reason, is drawn to his blandness. She seduces and bullies Adam into improving himself -- but always in her image, in accordance with her arbitrary standards. Their emerging liaison is counterbalanced by the deteriorating relationship between Adam's former roommate and his fiancée. Of course, in stories such as this (which are governed more by geometry than by humanity), it is a fixed rule that nothing ever ends happily for anyone. But to detail what goes amiss would be to strip the evening of the one meager surprise it strives for.

Suffice it to say that Evelyn is a deceptive termagant, though no more deceptive than her creator, Neil LaBute. Best known as the director/writer of the motion pictures In the Company of Menand Your Friends and Neighbors, LaBute is so deceptive, I'm not even sure that what he's offering here is a play. I sense that The Shape of Things is little more than the staged performance of a screenplay, a cynical opportunity for LaBute to pick up some pocket change while he's waiting for the movie version to be released. The film, by the way, will feature the same actors who appeared in The Shape of Things last year in London and New York, engagements that allowed audiences the privilege of paying big bucks to help LaBute hone his script.

Joey Parsons, Todd Lawson and Rachel Sledd in The Shape of Things
Jerry Naunheim
Joey Parsons, Todd Lawson and Rachel Sledd in The Shape of Things

What else makes me think this is a camouflaged screenplay? For one thing, the story wanders all over the place. Its ten scenes (with no intermission) cry out to be opened up on film. For another, there are no characters here, only types. Movies, through their reliance on personality, can get away with that; plays cannot. But the most telling clue is the lack of action. The actors barely move, as if their terse chatter has been designed for close-ups rather than the proscenium.

One can only pity the poor actors who are expected to bestow life on this lifeless enterprise. It's so much more satisfying to enact a real role than to serve as a mouthpiece, which is what these two leading players do. As Adam, Todd Lawson is never allowed to explore the ambivalence that should accompany this life-altering relationship. On the other hand, Joey Parsons as Evelyn deserves kudos, if for nothing more than being able to hold the audience's attention through an ungodly long monologue that is mostly rehashed exposition.

Joey Collins, as Adam's boorish former roommate, is saddled with the task of portraying a one-dimensional cliché. Rachel Sledd's not-so-innocent fiancée fares best because she's the only one of the four actors who succeeds in breaking past the confines of the words to invest her performance with nuance and shading. It couldn't have been easy, because director Steven Woolf has given his actors precious little room in which to breathe. There's a sense of rush to the evening. So many opportunities to fill this empty vessel are glossed over, the production sometimes feels like a staged reading minus the stools.

Despite my reservations, am I suggesting that The Shape of Thingsshould not have been produced? Not at all. In prior reviews I have alluded to a time in the 1950s and '60s when the Muny used to stage all the new Broadway musicals, regardless of their success or failure, and St. Louis was the better for it. So it is here. Serious theatergoers crave exposure to the new plays that are being written and talked about elsewhere. With its efficient Studio Theatre, the Rep has both the space and the resources to fill that need.

But can't it be done with a modicum of perspective? Instead of giddy director's notes that hail this script as "thrilling and compelling," why not be candid with the audience? Why not state the facts -- last year The Shape of Things was well received in London and poorly received in New York -- and then let the viewers decide for themselves? There's nothing wrong with flawed theater; not everything has to be "the best."

Perhaps the fear is that if you knew the facts, you might just decide to wait for the movie. It's due out next year.

 
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