PITTSFIELD >> Neil LaBute's shrewdly titled play, "The Shape of Things" — which is being given an earnest, if only fitfully rewarding, production by Town Players of Pittsfield at the Whitney Center for the Arts — opens in a gallery of the art museum of a small liberal arts college in what LaBute describes as a "conservative midwestern town."
A young woman named Evelyn, an MFA candidate in the art department with a focus on applied theory and criticism, is standing directly in front of a statue — Fornecelli's representation of God, a giant, nude Zeus-like figure whose genitals have been covered, by order of the town fathers, with sculpted grape leaves. Armed with a can of spray paint in her handbag, Evelyn has come to the museum with the intention of restoring the work to a semblance of anatomical correctness by painting the masked genitals over the leaves.
"You stepped over the line," a meek part-time guard named Adam, a junior majoring in English literature, says to Evelyn.
"I know. I meant to," she replies with a blend of casual flirtation and insouciance. Almost at once, the issues in "The Shape of Things" are joined. Truth, perception, how we see things, the nature of art are only the starting points for a structurally lean, emotionally rich, at times savage, play that extends its discussion of the nature of art into the realm of human relationships. What is true? What is false? How are truth and falsity shaped? How do we balance our self-image against how others see us, especially in intimate relationships? What are the borders of trust and what happens when those borders are crossed?
"I'm a very straightforward person. It's the only way to be," Evelyn says in what turns out to be one of her most audacious statements. With Evelyn, truth, when it is not collateral damage, often hides in plain sight. Moreover, as is the case with each of the play's four characters, what is not said carries weight and shapes experience in ways that are far more consequential than what is said.
Evelyn (played, for the most part, with fierce conviction and cunning by Leah Marie Parker) is all about intentionally crossing lines. As "The Shape of Things" makes its way to its stunning climax, Evelyn seemingly manipulates, engineers, uses Adam's insecurity and attraction to her. As their relationship deepens, Adam changes — physically, emotionally. For Adam, the truth, especially about Evelyn, is what he is willing to believe until he no longer has reason to believe it.
The production begins promisingly with Parker's craftily flirtatious, challenging Evelyn poised against Jerry Greene's Woody Allenlike deer-in-the-headlights Adam. But, rather than using that energy to build a steady, unrelenting charge to the play's conclusion, that energy is allowed to dissipate. That's partly due to a dulling of the rhythm and imprecision in the pacing and partly to a series of arbitrary acting choices that favor the obvious and blunt over subtlety and nuance, particularly in the case of Thomas Suski's Phillip, Adam's best friend and former roommate who is having second thoughts about his impending marriage to Jenny (beautifully and understandingly played by Alanna Bassett, who is being replaced this weekend by Dana Grieb), a good friend of Adam who still yearns for the more romantic relationship with Adam she has always wanted but to which he has been unresponsive.
For his part, Greene's earnestly shaped portrayal of Adam falls short of sharply defining Adam's transformation, which feels more cosmetic than substantive; more two-dimensional than three.
Teichner has mounted LaBute's play on a white-on-white set with a series of boxes and cubes serving as furniture pieces. And while Teichner's set feeds the audience's imaginative ability to shape things, at the same time he offers a series of projections that not only provide specificity of locale but a specificity that is at discordant odds with LaBute's setting.
It's not giving away anything critical to say that at the end of "The Shape of Things" we are left with the question of whether Adam has been destroyed by his relationship with Evelyn or strengthened by it; whether the risks he's taken in the name of love have been worth the exercise.
Risk, as it turns out, is the name of the game not only for Adam but also for Town Players of Pittsfield in presenting this unsettling, richly textured piece. More than basic skill and craftsmanship, the production's shortcomings have to do with issues of finesse, rhythm and an emotional palette that can be as monochromatic as the set. In taking on "The Shape of Things," credit Town Players of Pittsfield not only with coming up to the line but stepping over it as well.
What: "The Shape of Things" by Neil LaBute. Directed by Matthew T. Teichner
With: Leah Marie Parker, Jerry Greene, Alana Bassett (March 11-13), Dana Grieb (March 18-20), Thomas Suski
Designer: Matthew T, Teichner, lighting, sets, projections
Who: Town Players of Pittsfield
When: Through Sunday. Evenings — Friday and Saturday at 8. Matinee — Sunday at 2
Running time: 2 hours 2 minutes
Where: Whitney Center for the Arts, 42 Wendell Ave., Pittsfield
Tickets: $15 (general admission); $12 (seniors and students); $10 (Town Players members)
How: (413) 443-9279; townplayers.org