It’s hard to make art about art. Or maybe it’s just hard to make it look good. No, maybe it’s too easy to make. Maybe,it’s just a bad idea. I don’t know.
Neil LaBute’s “The Shape of Things” is a sometimes profound, often ludicrous, consistently conceited riff on the subject of being a subject. LaBute’s heralded play debuted in 2001, written at that precious time just before the world turned less romantic and more ironic. A time when debating the importance of art seemed mere scrimmage and not so crucial.
In Annise Celano’s staging of this favorite work, now at Subversive Theatre, we see now how dated this argument is. In 12 short years, the tides have turned, making this a quaint exercise in freshman-year art theory and not a timeless reminder for romantics.
It begins as a romantic comedy of sorts, in which an art student infiltrates the comparatively bumpkin lifestyle of a gallery guard. Their romance is unlikely, but their fire is indistinguishable – in him, she has a subject; in her, he has an intellectual educator. It’s romantic in terms, but before long adopts other genres without hesitation.
This production echoes the play’s freshman tendencies. This is Celano’s directorial debut on a professional stage, with much of her cast in the same maiden boat. It’s a lot of wide eyes for a play with such toiled cynicism, but this might be the right crash course for their, and our, initiation.
Celano’s work is largely astute, focusing our attention on the right moments between four characters – two couples, entwined at times – and their sophomoric dialogue. Celano knows the varying weights of these scenes and frames them accordingly.
Still, there are times when her blocking distracts, like a scene in bed that reeks of theatrical gimmick, when something much more natural would have kept our attention. Or the placement of a section of seats, which cuts off sightlines to some scenes. These are forgivably part and parcel with a freshman director. Despite this, it’s clear that Celano’s work is poised for evolution.
Our cast, however, is a less-fulfilling entity. As the guileful antagonist – or is she an unwilling protagonist? – Evelyn, Candice Kogut is a fixation. Arrestingly beautiful, yes, and manipulative as such, she is also a cagey mess – beauty and a beast. Kogut nails her earth-moving second act so convincingly that we have to wonder how well she knows Evelyn. This is too realistic a portrayal. It puts her first act – LaBute’s weakness in this eventually fascinating play – to shame. Kogut takes conniving lines and turns them evil.
The differences between both acts, not only in Kogut’s performance but in almost every other narrative sense, are stark and disconcerting. Usually, a conclusive second act has trouble living up to an expository first act.
The punch line, if you will, is too obvious, too early; thus, we spend a whole hour climbing shallow steps. There’s imbalance, the blame of which can be equally distributed among playwright, director and cast.
Her partner Adam, played by the wonderfully consistent Sean Marciniak, shows an evolution of character that is pleasingly logical. He is our duped subject, poked and prodded by Evelyn the Seductress, and yet when he finds the cojones to declare himself, he does with appropriate fear and uncertainty. We look to him for our own cues on the logic of his now-cyclonic reality.
The other couple, Jenny and Philip (Sophia Howes and Shabar Rouse) are pawns for Evelyn’s scheme. Rouse’s defensiveness is a loud match for Howes’ unawareness; Philip gets Evelyn’s “art” too well, while Jenny couldn’t be bothered by such elitism. As strategic as their roles appear to be, they serve LaBute’s argument most efficiently, with common language and common sense.
Howes’ choices, as commoner Jenny, own this solution better than anyone when, during the most vicious of takedowns, Evelyn hands her a litany of insults about art and high culture. Howes strikes a confused, disgusted, exhausted look.
And in one breath, without the burden of words or performance, we understand how pointless an exercise this has been.
“The Shape of Things”
2½ stars (Out of four)
Presented by Subversive Theatre through Nov. 23 in the Manny Fried Playhouse, 255 Great Arrow Ave. Tickets are $20-$25. Call 408-0499 or visit www.subversivetheatre.org.