YOUNGSTOWN — A scathing, remorseless examination of sexual gamesmanship at its cruelest and most arbitrary, Neil LaBute’s “The Shape of Things” is nastier than David Mamet on a misogynistic bender. And like Mamet’s “he said/she said” sexual-harassment polemic “Oleanna,” LaBute’s 2001 play has an icy, almost clinical quality that could send shivers down your spine. In other words, anyone looking for a feel-good romantic comedy is advised to look elsewhere for their pre-Valentine’s Day jollies.
The sterling production of “Shape of Things” that opened Thursday night at YSU’s Spotlight Arena Theater is, however, as good a mounting of the work as one could hope for. Student-director Zachary Campbell seems to have a firm grasp — and keen understanding — of LaBute’s metaphoric text, and he navigates the boxy perimeters of Spotlight’s theater-in-the-round with enviable dispatch. Most importantly, he has chosen four actors clearly up to the task of delivering the script’s most bilious bon mots. If the characters sometimes feel more like textbook case studies than recognizable human beings, that’s a flaw built into the play and not a reflection on Campbell or his cast’s abilities.
When perennial undergraduate Adam (Cheney Morgan) meets grad student Evelyn (Montaja Simmons) at an art gallery where she’s about to deface a statue, it’s love — or at least lust — at first sight. The virginal, slightly nerdy Adam is clearly in thrall to worldly sophisticate Evelyn, and he proves to be putty in her extremely capable hands. In short order, Evelyn makes the dweebish Adam her personal art project. She gets him to finally ditch his tacky corduroy jacket and eyeglasses for an Abercrombie & Fitch wardrobe and contact lenses. He begins exercising and eating more-healthful foods, undergoes a nose job and even ditches longtime pals Philip (Brandon Smith) and Jenny (Jennifer Tomerlin) at Evelyn’s behest. It’s a “them-or-me” proposition for this imperious task mistress, and Adam is only too happy to oblige. The boy has it bad, and that ain’t good.
Evelyn proves to be a master manipulator — mind games are her specialty — and the smitten Adam confuses her attention — and generously dispensed sexual favors — as signs that she genuinely cares for him. Her true intentions don’t become clear until the final scene, though, and that’s where LaBute and his play run into trouble.
The leap of faith we’re expected to make in buying Evelyn’s Machiavelian scheme is something most audiences aren’t likely to make. It feels more like a canny, button-pushing stunt than anything approximating real life. As an exegesis on what constitutes art, “The Shape of Things” is a tad facile at best. The play’s academic setting ultimately seems strikingly apt considering the jejune tone of LaBute’s “art versus life” debate.
The fact that we’re willing to go along for the (somewhat bumpy) ride is a tribute to Campbell’s exemplary student cast. Morgan, who’s done outstanding work on the community-theater circuit for several years now (“Biloxi Blues” at the Youngstown Playhouse; “The Glass Menagerie” at the New Castle Playhouse; “Rabbit Hole” at the Oakland Center for the Arts), delivers his first genuinely and unmistakably “adult” performance here, and he’s a revelation.
Also very fine is the amusingly glib Smith who brings a fiery intensity to Philip’s emotional conflagration at play’s end, and Tomerlin hits the right notes of wounded innocence as the too-trusting Jenny.
Simmons is to be commended for tackling such an unsympathetic (and verbose) role, and she handles Evelyn’s frequent monologues like a real trooper. The fact that I couldn’t quite make sense out of her character — is Evelyn a sociopath or merely the worst kind of pretentious poseur? — says more about LaBute’s “issues” with the opposite sex than Simmons’ rangy, intriguing performance.
Bravo to YSU for having the courage to tackle such a deliberately assaultive and confrontational work. That’s what university theater was intended for: to bring provocative modern drama to the attention of a discerning audience without concerns about commercial viability. After all, as LaBute says in one of the play’s best lines, “love and cruelty are as subjective as art.”
X“The Shape of Things” will be performed at 7:30 tonight and 3 p.m. Sunday at YSU’s Spotlight Arena Theater in Bliss Hall. For tickets, call (330) 941-3105.