Playwright Neil LaBute likes to make audiences squirm. Whether it's a graphic description of performance art involving menstrual blood or a tense scene between characters who are philandering friends, he attempts to make the audience feel the psychological nakedness of his characters. Some people might say that LaBute is manipulative; others would counter that making the audience feel the characters' pain is what playwrights are supposed to do.
You will squirm a little at Ghostlight Theatre Club's production of LaBute's "The Shape of Things." The playwright's dialogue and situations cause some discomfort, but some of the squirming is caused by the show's slow pace and Emily Etherton's halting direction. Thank goodness the straight-backed chairs in the tiny performance space at the a.k.a. Gallery have been replaced with comfortable theater seats.
"The Shape of Things" concerns four students at Mercy College, a generic, small, liberal arts college in a generic, small college town. Evelyn (Victoria Stahl), a graduate student in art, meets Adam (David Mays), a guard at the college's art museum, when she vandalizes a sculpture in an artistic "statement," she says. Adam is insecure practically to the point of torpor, so Evelyn easily manipulates him into doing her will. That's fine with Adam; it's a lot easier than finding a girlfriend on his own.
Evelyn is a modern-day Dr. Frankenstein and artistic anarchist. She takes her thesis adviser's advice to "strive to make art but change the world" a little too literally. Stahl does not look like a campus radical; in fact, she looks as if she could be president of her sorority. So she either undermines the character's integrity or enhances the character's insidiousness. Take your pick.
Is it significant that LaBute names his lead characters Adam and Evelyn, which can be shortened to Eve? If it is, the significance is lost on me.
Mays, who just ended a month-long run in the solo tour de force "I Am My Own Wife" (call him the hardest-working man in show business), does a terrific job of portraying Adam's transformation from a meek, fingernail-biting mouse into a man who is confident with his own ideas, even if those ideas run a bit too right-wing for some of us.
The simple, good-natured Jenny (Helen Hoepfner) and the dyspeptic Phillip (Corey Whaley) exist mainly to support the story of Adam and Evelyn. The first act is a long setup for the play's resolution in the second act. You might call LaBute the O. Henry of the acerbic set.
Ghostlight Theatre Club is a new theater company "specializing in edgy, artistically driven plays and musicals." Good for them. Other theater companies in town produce plenty of drivel and fluff. Its newness means that GTC's productions are, to put it tactfully, spare. In a program note for this production, Etherton states that the white stage, adorned with empty, white picture frames, represents a blank canvas on which the lives of the characters are portrayed. It may be spare, but it works.