Colonial Players closes its season with Neil LaBute's 2001 dark comedy/drama "The Shape of Things," drawing a striking contrast with the Depression-era romantic comedy that started the theater's run in September.
LaBute's cynical commentary on the contemporary art scene and his cool depiction of couples' doomed relationships seem vastly removed from the artful grace and wit of Noel Coward's 1930 production "Private Lives."
The only thing both shows share is a memorable starring performance by actor Pat Reynolds, who earlier invested Coward's sophisticated, self-assured British hero Elyot with romantic charm and now plays LaBute's English-major college student Adam as a less assertive hero. Reynolds' portrayal of Adam, willingly manipulated by art student Evelyn, gives Colonial Players' audiences insight into LaBute's amiable loser, who improves his image and loses his earlier identity.
"The Shape of Things" raises many questions and intrigues us with shifting characters. Evelyn is at times a free spirit, helping to improve uptight, nerdy Adam; at other points, Evelyn is a dominatrix — a contemporary Eve grooming Adam for a fall of biblical proportions.
When we meet Adam, who is working as a college art museum guard, he is a good-natured dork who tries to dissuade gallery visitor Evelyn from spray painting the fig leaf on an antique sculpture of a man. Sensible Adam might deduce that gallery visitor Evelyn is strange, but she tells him he is cute, and in doing so alters his initial impression of her.
Evelyn spray paints her phone number in the lining of Adam's coat and invites him to call her. Student Adam has two friends — Phillip and Jenny. He's had few romantic encounters until this strange meeting with Evelyn. Adam soon becomes involved with Evelyn, and his life begins to change. Our obsession with appearance is evidenced in Adam's shedding his old clothes, 25 pounds, his glasses (replaced by contacts) and an unattractive part of his nose. Adam gains confidence along with attention from friend Jenny, the fiancee of his best friend, Phillip, who forms an instant aversion to Evelyn.
Colonial Players' "The Shape of Things" is directed by Gary Seddon, who is making his CP directing debut with this production. Aware of the challenge this play presents, Seddon lists in his director's notes in the program that playwright LaBute explores the definition of art — is it subjective or objective? Noting that LaBute presents his audience with questions rather than answers, Seddon asks if LaBute has created truthful characters in their actions and language, and whether "the explicit language and sexual context of the play remove it from consideration as a work of art?"
Anyone planning to attend this play should be aware of the sexual content and raw language. Clearly, director Seddon has done his best to meet the challenge of this difficult, sometimes disturbing work.
The set design falls somewhat short, especially in the creation of a gallery setting bereft of a single piece of real art.
The Colonial Players production boasts excellent performances by all four members of the cast. Pat Reynolds has given us an amazing season, portraying a series of characters from Elyot in "Private Lives," to Paul Gauguin in "Inventing Van Gogh", to the enigmatic antihero David Ames in "Earth and Sky." Now he becomes Adam, a character he invests with layers of painful humanity. In his program bio, Reynolds tells us that "this will be the final time that he will play a character in his 20s" — something I'm not ready to accept.
In the other leading role as Evelyn, Karen Grim, who was seen in CP's one-act festival, creates a fascinating independent woman who never allows love to interfere with her using sex to subjugate others.
Lawrence Griffin is strong as Phillip, a character that he assures us is "radically different" from himself. Griffin summons believable fury and the necessary boorishness, along with an intriguing naiveté to be convincing as Phillip.
Stephanie Morelli creates a sweet, shy Jennie who may be stereotypical but nonetheless is made real enough by Morelli to make us care about what happens to her.
We should stress that LaBute's "The Shape of Things" will more likely please those adventurous theater-goers searching for biting commentary on the contemporary scene and who are not offended by crude language or staged sexual depictions. Additionally, it might cause anyone knowledgeable about art to question why a character who is a sculptress never mentions any 20th-century role models.
"The Shape of Things: continues weekends through June 25. Call 410-263-7373 to order tickets.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun