Neil LaBute’s Garden of Eden

Marber, Almond, the Pet Shop Boys—a London Theater Blitz

LONDON—"You stepped over the line" is the first thing Adam (Paul Rudd), a museum guard, says to Evelyn (Rachel Weisz), a sculptor, in Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things (Almeida at King's Cross). The remark sets off figurative, if not literal, bells, because it announces that, even though they meet cute, Evelyn isn't good news for Adam. The alarms ring again when an artwork she's threatening to deface involves a fig leaf placed over an apparently offending penis. Whistles shriek yet a third time when Evelyn takes a ferocious bite out of an apple. Adam and Evelyn stick together nonetheless, even though his best pal Phillip (Frederick Weller) and Phillip's fiancée Jenny (Gretchen Mol) sound warnings, and despite his fling with Jenny and Evelyn's retaliatory sex-capade with Phillip.

That Evelyn is leading Adam down the Garden of Eden path is never in doubt in LaBute's far too obvious tragicomedy. The enterprise might be dismissed as slight—a reworking of his standard battle-of-the-sexes theme—were it not for the tough performances and a final sequence in which Evelyn explains her intentions during her denouement art-project lecture. The plot twist is too ingenious to be revealed, but it isn't giving too much away to say that The Shape of Things ends up a companion piece to LaBute's film In the Company of Men. Perhaps the playwright, who also raises some not-new questions about what qualifies as art, got tired of people dunning him with remarks like "Yes, men are shit-heels, but aren't some women, too?" If only to appreciate the shape of his response, The Shape of Things is a must-see.

The line crossing that Evelyn does is echoing around the London stage, where three of the best offerings, all by young playwrights, concern—in 90 minutes or less—crossing the border that separates childhood from adulthood. The need to advance from boy to man, practically a citywide theme, is most visible in Douglas Maxwell's Decky Does a Bronco (Almeida at Coram's Fields). Maxwell's plangent ode is site specific—a playground dominated by four swings—where four of the characters have their inner adults literally standing behind them. The nine-year-old protagonists are rambunctious kids who enjoy picking on the least athletic clique member, lardy and whining Decky, who can't do a bronco. (A bronco, by the play's definition, occurs when a boy standing on the seat of a swing jumps off after working up enough momentum for the now empty seat to fly over the top bar.) The mindless playground activity is a perfect metaphor for youthful insouciance cut short, when, as happens to Decky, someone comes to an ugly, unexpected end.

In Suzy Almond's School Play (Soho), Charlie, rebellious despite her gifts for music—or perhaps because of them—is the one who grows up. But not until she's confronted by, and confronts, Miss Fry, a teacher who's lost belief in her own talent. While Charlie decides to see less of troublemaking chums Paul and Lee, she goads diffident Miss Fry into some growing up of her own. Almond's play could be considered a pat, if offbeat, illustration of the comment Anna sings in The King and I about teachers being taught by their students, but the playwright's ear for how children and adults express themselves when they're unsure of who they are is pitch perfect.

The lads refusing to take adult responsibility in Roy Williams's Clubland (Royal Court Upstairs) aren't kids anymore. They just act that way. Ben, white, and Ken, black, remain buddies, even though Ben has married. Neither is good with women—Kenny can't land one, and Ben abuses the one he's got. When Kenny starts seriously dating no-nonsense Sandra, Ben strongly resents the threat to their nightly clubbing. Williams has the loudmouths reach an accord that doesn't seem entirely likely, but here again the drawbacks are outweighed by a sure command of character and milieu.

More crossed lines in clubland: Closer to Heaven (Arts), a collaboration between the Pet Shop Boys (Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe) and Jonathan Harvey, known for Beautiful Thing. The action in this garish tale of showbiz bottom feeders takes place in a sleazy nightspot, a joint where drugs are run and taken. It's owned by tough-talking homosexual Vic, father to hard-bitten but tolerant Stacey. When Straight Dave, a dancer looking for a break, shows up, Stacey both champions him and chomps at the bit to land him. For a while Straight Dave is game, but since this is one of those wishful-thinking enterprises gay creators occasionally dip into, he eventually turns into Gay Dave. These characters, a hostess with a whip, and a tits-and-ass ensemble bring genuine life to the stage, but the wannabe Rocky Horror Show is too rocky in the wrong way.

The man who's never entirely shucked off boyhood in Alistair Beaton's funny and frightening Feelgood (Garrick) is political spinmeister Eddie, who stops at nothing—murder included—to ease the way for his Labour leader. When news of a tragic genetics experiment the party has denied condoning looks about to break, Eddie uses every under-the-table trick he can to make sure his ace isn't trumped. Nobody changes in Beaton's script, but that's hardly his timely, lacerating point.

Patrick Marber doesn't demonstrate professional maturing in Howard Katz (Cottesloe), a dreary examination of the male middle-age crisis. The title character, played well by Ron Cook, is an obnoxious actor's agent (imagine that) who gets sacked and goes into a high-speed tailspin that lands him sleeping on a park bench. Marber's age—mid thirties—cuts him some slack: He's undoubtedly too young to understand the issue. Apparently, if current productions are accurate, boys will be boys until they're not, but only some playwrights are able to grapple convincingly with the subject.

Related Voice stories:

James Hannaham on Neil LaBute's Bash.
Michael Feingold on Patrick Marber's Closer.
James Hannaham on Jonathan Harvey's Beautiful Thing.

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