s I was leaving the intimate surroundings of Ace Theatre after an intriguing rendition of Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things, co-produced by the new National Repertory Theatre and Ace, I got stuck behind two slow-moving, gray-haired ladies. They were in no hurry, oblivious to the crush they were causing behind them. The older woman was using a walker. The performance put me in a particularly bracing mood, sort of weightless, and I thought, what's the rush? The three of us reached the door at the same time, so I let the ladies go ahead. Then I did something I never do: I asked them what they thought of the play. I was thinking the grannies might not have enjoyed the raunchy drama about sexy twentysomethings, but they kicked my assumptions right in the ass.
"We loved it," the younger one said quickly.
"Oh, yes," added the older granny, maneuvering the walker around the cracks near the side parking lot. "Wasn't that fun?"
The Shape of Things
Ace Theater, 17011Bamwood, 281-587-1020.
Through August 31. $12.
I was debating whether to challenge her choice of words — "fun" is not exactly how I'd describe this lacerating LaBute — when the younger of the two interrupted.
"There's so much meaning between the lines," she said with the blind conviction of a true believer — or a critic. "We love his stuff. Did you see Fat Pig?" It was dark in the parking lot, but I swear she smiled. Certainly, her voice did. "Wasn't that something?"
My mind raced back two seasons ago to Theater LaB's stinging production. I had completely forgotten that LaBute play.
"We go to the theater all the time. He's so unlike other writers," said Granny No. 1.
Their gray little heads disappeared into their Saturn.
"See you at the theater," I said, waving goodbye.
"You bet," one of their voices said in the darkness.
If theater bad boy Neil LaBute can elicit such rapturous response from these octogenarians, think what he'll do for you.
Known for plays with a perspective best described as "men behaving badly," LaBute's outlook on life and love is downright dingy. In the Company of Men, Bash and Your Friends and Neighbors are among his bleak yet surprisingly audacious works which always suggest something even darker than what's most obvious — that "meaning between the lines," as the appreciative grannies noticed. In The Shape of Things, you don't know why something's happening, but you realize something's off kilter, not right. And this time, it's the woman who behaves badly.
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Nerdy Adam (Ryan Thomas Heitzman) meets artist manqué Evelyn (Linda Boelsche) at the college art gallery, where Evelyn, armed with a can of spray paint, is about to deface a nude male statue. It's not that she wants to cover "it" up, she wants to draw a penis on the offensive fig leaf. "I don't like art that isn't true," she avows. Although aloof and spiky, she takes a surprising liking to Adam (it certainly surprises him), sparring with him, leading him on. When she paints her phone number inside his jacket, he's hooked. From then on, Adam's putty in her hands. He starts to eat better; he goes to the gym; he buys better clothes; he agrees to a nose job; he drops his best friends (expertly limned by Jonathan Waltmon and Bethany McCade).
The threat of potential violence lurks right below the surface. Pleasant, harmless conversations suddenly turn into confrontations with one wrong word. You don't know where scenes are going — anything can happen. LaBute's also known for his twisty endings, and Shape is no different. Everything becomes perfectly clear once the mud is washed off. Some of the dirt stays put, though, staining us as well as the miserable quartet.
Although Adam's remarkable physical transformation is left pretty much to our imagination, Ryan Heitzman convinces through his character's growing confidence and maturity as he morphs under Evelyn's tutelage. The play's increasing tension is masterfully handled by Jennilyn Heitzman's razor-sharp direction, but it's Boelsche's trenchant performance as Evelyn that captures LaBute at his core. She is, at once, slightly out of focus, yet very much in the moment. You can't make her out, which only adds to this actor's allure. Part siren, part enigma, she's layered with both truth and deception, hard and soft. It's a unique, defining performance and, without question, already one of the best in this new season.
With this co-production with Ace Theatre, the newly formed National Repertory Theatre makes a most impressive Houston debut, giving LaBute's pointed drama all the sharp edges it requires. You wouldn't doubt the raves from two sweet grannies, would you?