Theater of Cruelty

Given the sleazy state of humanity, I think I'll defenestrate myself: Sam Rosen (showing left nipple) and Maggie Chestovich in 'The Shape of Things.'
Eye of the Storm

During an argument in Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things, M.F.A. candidate and dogmatic riot grrrl Evelyn (Maggie Chestovich) tries to prod her new sack partner, Adam (Sam Rosen), into being less of a mealy-mouthed Midwesterner. Adam and Evelyn (LaBute, a master of subtlety, has chosen the names in reference to a popular story from the book of Genesis) have just seen a Karen Finley-style performance-art piece that included the artist scrawling her father's name with her menstrual blood. "[Art] is a visceral thing," Evelyn argues. "You've got to feel it. Love it, hate it; it isn't a casserole." Even accounting for the liberality with which we casserole-loving Minnesotans dispense standing ovations, the overwhelmingly upright crowd at Minneapolis Theatre Garage seemed pretty loving. I was among the minority who remained seated, quietly protesting Eye of the Storm's well-staged area premiere of this tiresome and obnoxious play.

The Shape of Things, directed by Stephen DiMenna, is best experienced without much prior knowledge, so if you're inclined to see it (and that previous paragraph didn't change your inclination), skip to the next review. Okay, now that we're alone, let's talk plot. Adam is a geeky English major at a small liberal-arts college. Chubby and insecure, he spends his Friday nights hustling between his jobs as a video-store clerk and a museum security guard. At the museum, he meets self-assured iconoclast Evelyn, who becomes his girlfriend and his Henry Higgins. With Eve's encouragement, Adam changes his diet and wardrobe, starts working out, buys contacts, gets a tattoo, even goes to a plastic surgeon for a bit of nose refinement. (Memo to self: look into earning potential for video clerks and security guards in Midwestern college towns).

Having errantly picked the script, Eye of the Storm is fairly powerless against its wretchedness. In his program notes, Stephen DiMenna seems to take this hyperbolic material seriously as some kind of statement about the Gap- and Cosmo-poisoned youth of today ("LaBute captures the language and essence of this generation..."). And in this (misguided) spirit, the gifted Chestovich depicts Evelyn with an earnest intensity. The woman is not without charm, really, and Adam falls deeply, obsessively in love with her. But as his paunch shrinks, his confidence grows, and his devotion proves to be less than absolute. Soaring with his newfound cuteness, Adam welcomes the advances of longtime crush and self-described "pretty okay average-type person" Jenny (Zoe Pappas), the fiancée of his macho best friend Phillip (Brent Doyle). For most of the long show, this plays out like a pointless if occasionally funny, marginally hip sex comedy (the pitch: Singles with some squabbles about art), complete with potty-mouthed dialogue, transitional music by the White Stripes, and a Dickens quote to help choke down the dick jokes.

The play's climax, though, reminds you who's behind the campus comedy. LaBute, best known as the writer-director of theater-of-cruelty movies In the Company of Men (original title: Men Are Pricks) and Your Friends and Neighbors (original title: Women Are Bitches, Men Still Pricks) is considered by many a misanthropic moralist. (I'd just call him a sadist.) Without reckless bean spilling, let's just say that Evelyn turns out to be one mean cookie (or "cunt" in Adam's words--but simmer down, ladies, LaBute hates everybody). The revelation of her true purpose and character, thanks largely to Chestovich's icy performance, does have the "visceral," love-it-or-hate-it impact that is LaBute's raison d'être. For about a minute. The scene quickly fizzles as the writer's censure of beauty fixation and life-as-art and art-as-therapy are laboriously explained. And it's still not over. The flaccid denouement. The dopey final image. The standing "O." To nick the Edvard Munchian closing line from In the Company of Men: Aaaarggghhhh!


Like Nye's or Café di Napoli, the sleepy high-rise in the Jungle Theater's production of Kenneth Lonergan's Lobby Hero is an unwitting museum piece. It's classic not from careful preservation but from years of granitic resistance to change. Brilliantly designed by Bain Boehlke, the Manhattan lobby is tatty but still elegant in an appropriately bland way. A pastel, "abstract" painting serves as the centerpiece, surrounded by bright green furniture. Nap-loving security guard Jeff (Nathan Christopher) sits behind a blond, art-deco desk. An antique speaker is mounted on the wall, looking like it's about to herald V-J Day.

The set, like much of Lonergan's dialogue, is so perfect and accurate that a few quibbling plausibility problems in director Bryan Bevell's staging seem all the more pronounced. For example, I'm still trying to figure out what Jeff, an Ed Norton-like regular guy, is doing using the word "ossify." Either Lonergan can't keep his highfalutin vocabulary away from his salt-of- the-earth characters or Christopher is playing him too dumb. I side with the latter theory; Christopher's performance is confident and funny, but seems to underestimate and possibly sugarcoat his character. Jeff is a shiftless 27-year-old with an amusing hard-luck story. William (James Young II), "square and no fun" by his own admission, is Jeff's similarly aged boss and haranguing mentor. William is a go-getter with a long history of shooting straight and flying right, but now faces a distressing moral dilemma. His nogoodnik brother may have been involved in the rape and murder of a nurse, and William has been asked to provide a false alibi.

Intertwined in this conundrum are two police officers with a similar mentor-apprentice relationship. Bill (Gus Lynch, flat-topped and imposing, and an unqualified joy to watch) is a hulking, cocky "supercop" who's trying to train his rookie partner and adoring mistress Dawn (an unpretentious and nicely detailed reading by Angie Haigh). Jeff awkwardly puts the make on Dawn and breaks her heart when he lets slip that Bill's regular visits to the apartment are for lurid tête-à-têtes with the building's resident hussy.

A series of variously motivated revelations and confessions further complicate matters and force everyone into murky moral waters. Lonergan, the writer-director of the movie You Can Count on Me, writes quirky but convincing characters. He lives in a messy world with screwed-up people and he responds with (aha!) grace, subtlety, and empathy, as if people might be defined by something other than Original Sin. Confidential to Neil LaBute: You're not beyond redemption.

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