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Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things examines casual cruelty

I would not want to meet Neil LaBute’s parents. LaBute, with such movies as In The Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors, has secured for himself a position of authority on how despicably cruel people can be to one another. In his movies and plays he has explored countless ways of demeaning, humiliating and debasing others. He seems compulsively drawn to the task and exhibits a passionate flair that could only come from a heart long ruined by the dinner-table humiliations dished out by some very mean parents.

Or, let’s just give him the chance to plead victim, shall we? Let’s allow him to credit his parents with teaching him such sour, painful, rotten behavior. It’s too hard to believe anyone could actually spring into being as fully revolting as some of LaBute’s characters.

The Shape of Things opened this week in the UM Masquer Theatre, and director Jim Kriley has taken a neat little cast of four and sent them on their merry ways in a dance devised by LaBute to show off another version of vicious humiliation. Set on a small college campus, the play begins in an art gallery where Evelyn is about to deface a statue of God. Adam, whose job as gallery security forces him into action, asks her not to carry out her plan, and a careful, artful and unlikely flirtation ensues as the wily, self-possessed woman beams her radiance on the shlubby guy. Over the course of Act I, the two engage in a romance that transforms the shapeless Adam into an attractive man and reveals Evelyn to be a rather crass narcissist who enjoys nothing more than the sound of Adam’s adoration. She is definitely a touch sadistic as she challenges the nervous Adam to such outrageous acts as public restroom sex (with her) and cosmetic surgery. He sees her only as a delicious siren who has blessed him with attention and feels, for the most part, absurdly lucky to have someone like her interested in someone like him.

Early on, Adam and Evelyn have dinner with Adam’s best friend, a sexist cad named Phillip, and his fiancée, Jenny, who are planning to marry underwater. Phillip and Evelyn, predictably, cannot stand each other, each one vying for the dominant position in Adam’s life, each one too busy crowing to hear anything else in the room. Their eventual blow-up is a foregone conclusion.

The Shape of Things is an unusual selection for the University of Montana, and one that should be applauded for its evident risks. Language is open, vulgar and loose, subject matter covers the baser elements of human behavior, and characters have sex on stage (under a blanket, and definitely not for comic effect, as in Biloxi Blues). The first scene is liberal with the word “penis” and many of its synonyms. None of this is actually all that shocking, but it is wobbly territory for the university, and I am glad to see it in play. Kriley feels comfortable with the material, and his production, thankfully, follows him. Each of the four actors seems exceedingly at home inside LaBute’s head.

As Evelyn, Amber Mason has spooky authority, a cold and clear confidence that makes her beauty chilling and her voice perfect for commanding others. She is so bright and delectable that you could easily understand giving yourself over to her. Mason manages sexiness amid carnivorous intensity, and she manages to revive the dormant cliché of the dangerous woman. (This is entirely to Mason’s credit, since LaBute is incapable of escaping cliché when it comes to women). As her foil, Kristen Springer gives nice Jenny authenticity and sincerity, and her scenes have a surprising richness that altogether grounds the play. As the puppyish, self-effacing Adam, Ture Carlson mews and wanders in just the right way (in the penultimate dress rehearsal, he was still having a bit of trouble shifting physically into the more confident and sexually fulfilled creation that Evelyn inspires, although he seemed to understand the transformation quite well). Bryce Jensen, as Phillip, is a touch too boorish, perhaps aping frat boy bravado a little too well. He must wrestle LaBute’s thin writing for the character and he does so admirably most of the time, especially in the scene that opens the second act, which finds him and Adam dancing around each other’s lies. Jensen has a wonderful moment of cool, hard viciousness, letting a look flash over his face that I would never want to see twice from a friend.

However, foregone conclusion is what this play is best at—not the shock, not the nastiness, not the amplified social behavior. For all its efforts, The Shape of Things is an exceedingly juvenile work (come on—Adam and Evelyn?), marred by the same problems that bring down a lot of LaBute’s writing. The central ethical dilemma of most of the play (until it reaches its rather obvious climax) hinges on a kiss between the now more confident Adam and Jenny, his friend’s girlfriend. For one thing, none of the characters have been established as people of such strong moral fiber that a kiss would send them into the writhings and despair that ensue. Evelyn, that seductive snake, blows the kiss up to huge proportions, which might make sense were the play set in ninth grade, but not when it is set at college’s end. Adam moans desperately about how wrong the kiss was. He lies about it to his dear friend. But for all the wailing and shrieking, the characters cannot give this kiss much heft—this is no Othello, although LaBute alludes to that play—and the moral center of the play begins to decompose.

As to the obvious climax, which LaBute seems to think is volcanic: Well, he has telegraphed it from the beginning, and although Kriley keeps it at bay and suitably muffles it until drama demands its unveiling, the play itself is just not good enough to render any surprises. Mason has to carry a hefty speech at the end, made all the weightier for its explanation of a moral code. I wished she believed more in what Evelyn had achieved. At the dress rehearsal, she seemed unconvinced, but—again—I blame LaBute, whose snickering can be heard all too clearly off stage. Ultimately, the play is about morality, but only in the way morality might fill up a middle schooler’s diary. This is morality of a close and obvious sort, lacking in subtlety, lacking in true despair or any wrenching conflict. The Shape of Things runs Oct. 12–16 and again Oct. 19–23 at UM’s Masquer Theatre. Performances begin at 7:30 PM.

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