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Here's a Big sadistic slice

By John Angell Grant
Saturday September 21, 2002

Feminists objected loudly in 1997 to the content of Neil LaBute’s striking but misogynistic film “In the Company of Men.” In that tale, two corporate Gen-X guys abused and humiliated a woman for fun. 

The movie went on to win the Filmmaker’s Trophy at the Sundance Film Festival and a New York Film Critics Circle Award. LaBute himself rode the notoriety to further film success, soon directing “Nurse Betty” with Renee Zellweger and “Possession” with Gwyneth Paltrow. 

But LaBute began his career as a playwright, and he continues to produce plays. On Thursday, Aurora Theater in downtown Berkeley opened a production of LaBute’s 2001 London stage hit “The Shape of Things to Come.” 

In some ways, “Shape of Things” turns the tables on “In the Company of Men,” calling for a woman to give a man a big, sadistic slice of humble pie. 

In “Shape,” a young college art student (the secretive Stephanie Gularte) spraypaints the genitals of a museum statue as a statement against “false art.” In the process, she takes up with a naive literature student (the shy Craig Marker) who is moonlighting as a museum security guard. 

Before it’s all over, she has taught him a big lesson about trust, betrayal and art. The problem is – intriguing concept aside – the play itself isn’t very good. 

In “Shape of Things” the young couple works on their new relationship, contrasting to f the relationship of two engaged friends (obnoxious frat boy Danny Wolohan and bland blonde co-ed Arwen Anderson). Each pair of romances is between a weak-willed person and a strong-willed person. 

In 10 scenes over two hours, with no intermission, the four meet in various combinations at the museum, in a restaurant, at Starbucks or in the park, to hash and rehash interminable relationship issues. 

It’s like a fourth-rate episode of “Friends” without the glamour or the sitcom jokes. A twist at the end digs the story out at the 11th hour, but by then the play has stretched to an unwieldy and unbearable length. 

In many ways this feels like a formulaic college playwriting class project. It opens with that familiar elliptical dialogue which is the son of Mamet, which is the son of Pinter, which is the son of Beckett. 

The characters are not particularly original or interesting. They have the predictable range of relationship problems, but who cares? The stakes just don’t seem very high for such vanilla people. 

Here’s a dialogue sample. Man says, “Love is a big word.” Woman answers, “I know. That’s why I used it.” 

Further, the characters spend a lot of time fumbling inarticulately and tediously through plot points that the audience already understands. 

Director Tom Ross and the talented Aurora team try valiantly to blow air into this leaky balloon. The play is well directed, acted and staged, although the actors are too old to play college kids. 

On a pale wood-bare stage, scenic designer Kate Boyd cleverly uses large white blocks that become alternately a bed, or chairs, or museum pedestals, or park benches. 

Sound designer Yvette Janine Jackson’s music breaks get the blood flowing. Between scenes she samples house, jazz, rock, new music, electronic, all with a strong beat, like a heartbeat.  

Costume designer Maggie Whitaker’s work simulates authentic youth clothing, with an appropriately gaudy twist for the woman artist. 

But you can do only so much with a sophomoric script. It seems a pity that the women in “Shape of Things” weren’t given a stronger vehicle by which to avenge their shabby mistreatment in “The Company of Men.”