STAGE TO SCREEN: Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things

STAGE TO SCREEN: Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things Just when you let your guard down a bit, the old Neil LaBute comes roaring back.
Neil LaBute
Neil LaBute (Photo by Aubrey Reuben)

People seeking Victorian poetesses or addled soap-opera fans—the subjects of his last two films, "Possession" and "Nurse Betty"—will be more than a little surprised by "The Shape of Things," which opens May 9 in New York and Los Angeles.

"I'm not one to censor myself very closely," says LaBute, who has made that abundantly clear in such provocative plays and films as The Mercy Seat and "In the Company of Men." "I like being prodded with a stick, and I also like doing the prodding."

Why does "Shape of Things" bring such scathing works as "In the Company of Men" to mind? Well, it’s hard to explain without divulging way too much of the plot. Like the play of the same name that ran in London and Off Broadway in 2001 (and with the identical cast), "The Shape of Things" starts as a fairly typical romance and then becomes something very different. Suffice it to say that a lot of vintage LaBute themes, notably cruelty between (and among) men and women, come into play in various ways.

The stage production was known primarily for three reasons: It starred a bunch of familiar Hollywood names (Paul Rudd and Rachel Weisz, in particular), featured a deafening series of Smashing Pumpkins songs and often ended without a curtain call. (This latter affectation gets lampooned rather harshly in the highly entertaining Off Off-Broadway comedy An Evening With Burton and Russell.) The Smashing Pumpkins have been replaced by Elvis Costello—a definite upgrade, in my book—and the action has shifted from the Midwest to California. Other than that, though, LaBute has made very few changes to his script.

Maybe he didn’t have time: "The Shape of Things" went before the cameras just a month after the Off-Broadway run closed. "It was definitely, in my mind, a play," LaBute says. "I tend to think in words, so I can’t say I envision [plays and movies] differently. I just go—and if the characters stay in that room a long time, it feels like a play." (He plans to do a similar conversion with the September 11-themed "The Mercy Seat," which may be filmed for Showtime this fall.) Frederick Weller, who plays Rudd’s boorish best friend (and who is currently playing the racist pitcher in Take Me Out), says the cast all grappled with taking their stage personas and "scaling them back" for the cameras so quickly: "It was certainly strange. We had done the play something like 200 times." Also, because they learned during the run that the film would happen shortly thereafter, "we didn’t get that sense of going out with a bang."

Weller had seen and enjoyed LaBute’s work before, and he arrived at Shape of Things rehearsals with a very specific image of the man. "I expected him to be a misanthropic freak, and he was not. He understands characters and cares about characters. And he was the life of the party."

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The most enticing offering for New York stage buffs currently playing in New York can be found at the Screening Room in SoHo. It wasn’t until reading the New York Times movie reviews that I even learned the theatre was showing a 1988 version of "Medea" by Lars von Trier ("Breaking the Waves," "Dancer in the Dark"). As it turns out, this made-for-Danish television offering has a definite cult following. (Von Trier followed it up with "Zentropa," which is the film that put him on the map in the United States.) It’s not a complete success by any means, but it packs an incredible amount of visual razzle-dazzle into its 76 minutes.

Von Trier, who adapted a script by the late Carl Theodor Dreyer (and claims to have channeled his fellow Dane in the process), was clearly experimenting with low-budget effects here. Unfortunately, the results sometimes come off as trippy for the sake of being trippy; it often looks as if it were filmed in 1968, not 1988. This Medea (Kirsten Olesen) lives in a swamp that wouldn’t look out of place in "The Princess Bride"—she literally sinks into the ground upon leaving her shack. It makes for some arresting visuals, but it’s hard to shake the idea that exile may be just what the doctor ordered. Glauce, daughter of Creon and usurper of Jason’s heart, gets a lot more screen time here, and von Trier puts a perverse spin on the climactic killings, taking a page from "Jude the Obscure" and providing a ghoulish precursor to "Dancer in the Dark." All in all, an intriguing if not always compelling take on the play.

As if "Medea" isn’t enough for theatre fans, wait until May 18-22, when the Screening Room’s "Roman Polanski Before Hollywood" series will feature—you guessed it—"The Fearless Vampire Killers." Yes, the material that spawned Dance of the Vampires, in all its original tacky glamour.

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Of all the places to go for an insightful, comprehensive summer preview, "Stage to Screen" is about the last place I’d recommend. Summer can be a really fun time to see great popcorn movies, and it’s hard to beat spending a Monday night watching a classic at Bryant Park, but it’s a lousy time to find much in the way of theatrical adaptations. There are a few exceptions, though, and I’ll talk about them more in my next column. I’ll also discuss "The Sea" (May 16), which is based on a very popular Icelandic play by Olafur Haukur Smmonarson.

That and "The Shape of Things" make up the bulk of stage-based films in May, but a few other titles may be of interest. "Blue Car," the David Strathairn film I mentioned last month, has changed its release date. The Salome costar—along with Margaret Colin, currently in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg—can now be seen starting May 2. Also opening that day is "X2," the "X-Men" sequel. The original was already jam-packed with theatre talent (Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Hugh Jackman), and they have been joined here by Brian Cox and Alan Cumming, who employs a German accent that will seem very familiar to Kit Kat Klub denizens. May 16 will see National Actors Theatre artistic director Tony Randall in his first film since 1993’s "Fatal Instinct"; he has a supporting role in "Down With Love," which is designed as a throwback to the 1950’s and 1960’s Doris Day–Rock Hudson romantic comedies. (Randall was the only other person to star in all three of those films.) And the gay comedy "Friends and Family" (May 16) features a cast list that puts "X2" to shame: Tovah Feldshuh, Louis Zorich, Beth Fowler, Edward Hibbert and Anna Maria Alberghetti.

But perhaps the best offering comes from Brooklyn, where the enterprising BAM Rose Cinemas will present a mini-Horton Foote retrospective from May 15 to 18. In addition to the big movie hits ("To Kill a Mockingbird," "Tender Mercies"), the series will include an all-day screening on May 18 of "The Texas Trilogy," three films adapted from Foote’s plays: "Courtship," "On Valentine’s Day" and "1918." Hallie Foote and William Converse-Roberts star in all three, and Horton Foote himself will participate in a Q&A. Great chance to see a living legend along with some of his finest works. Call (718) 636-4100 for more information.

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I try to leave the television stuff to Michael Buckley, but a flurry of HBO projects worth noting have surfaced in the last few weeks. Everybody knows about the Mike Nichols miniseries of "Angels in America," starring Al Pacino and Meryl Streep; that’s scheduled to debut late this year. Another sprawling epic, Tom Wolfe’s "A Man in Full," also appears to be going the miniseries route: Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies (Dinner With Friends) has apparently submitted a workable script. Another noted writer, the priceless Larry Gelbart, has written "And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself." The historical epic, starring Antonio Banderas (Nine) as the celebrated outlaw, has not announced a premiere date yet. And last but certainly not least, the redoubtable Elaine Stritch will be the subject of a D.A. Pennebaker documentary scheduled to air on the cable channel in 2004. (Plans are to give it a brief theatrical run first for Oscar eligibility.) This project, which stemmed from but will not be a filmed account of Stritch’s acclaimed one-woman show At Liberty, marks a reunion of sorts. Pennebaker was the guy behind the camera for the incredible "Original Cast Album—Company," for which Stritch provided many of the more unforgettable moments.

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A quick recap on some other stuff, most of which you’ve probably already read on Playbill On-Line:

Craig Lucas plans to direct and adapt his Dying Gaul for the big screen with Campbell Scott and Patricia Clarkson. Good call: The Dying Gaul is one of Lucas’ best plays, it lends itself very well to film, and Scott has done right by Lucas in other projects, notably "Longtime Companion."

David Lindsay-Abaire is adapting his Kimberly Akimbo for DreamWorks. I can’t tell if this will work or not, but replacing leading lady Marylouise Burke with anybody else, even Judi Dench, would be grounds for a boycott.

• None other than Harold Pinter is adapting Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth, possibly to star Michael Caine and Jude Law. Why? I can’t imagine anyone improving on the 1972 version, and Pinter seems particularly ill-suited to the task. If it absolutely had to be updated (which I doubt), get David Mamet or Michael Frayn or maybe Patrick Marber to do it.

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My Favorite Thought: The general consensus about a movie centered around September 11 (as in "The Guys") was that it’s just too soon, with two or three "maybe if it’s good enough" exceptions. I got an awful lot of very powerful personal recollections about those awful events, which I’m choosing not to post here. But I read and thought about every last one of them.

People were also happy to discuss which musicals they’d like to see ride the post-"Chicago" wave into movie theatres. Steve was just one of many to rank their picks of the various projects being discussed:

"My three choices from the list of musicals you provided (in order) are Sweeney Todd, City of Angels and Rent. I believe that all three of these shows have solid plots that will convert well to the big screen. Even though I am a huge Sondheim fan, I have a hard time picturing Into the Woods on film; it is too fragmented. I also love Urinetown, but it is difficult to imagine the parody and biting wit converting well. (But ‘Urinetown, The Film’ does have a nice ring to it.) I would love to be proven wrong on both accounts. Guys and Dolls and Bye Bye, Birdie are already busy enough spending their long overdue retirement in high school gymnasiums; there is no need for a remake of a remake of a remake of a… Finally, one musical that I would love to see on the list is Kiss of the Spider Woman. The concept has already fared well as a novel, a non-musical film and a stage musical. Plus, Kander & Ebb's scores have proven themselves on screen with both ‘Cabaret’ and ‘Chicago.’

Your Thoughts: Fair enough—Kiss of the Spider Woman is on the list. But "long-overdue retirement" for Guys and Dolls? Ouch. Other suggestions included an age-appropriate Pal Joey and Woody Allen directing a Hugh Jackman-led production of Company. New question: Do people like the savage, scab-picking Neil LaBute or the "Nurse Betty"/"Possession" Neil LaBute? And am I the only one really skeptical about a Pinter adaptation of "Sleuth"?

Eric Grode is a 2002-2003 American Theatre Affiliated Writer, associate editor of The Sondheim Review and a theatre critic for Back Stage. He can be reached at egrode@hotmail.com.

Paul Rudd and Rachel Weisz in the Off Broadway produciton of <i>The Shape of Things</i>.
Paul Rudd and Rachel Weisz in the Off Broadway produciton of The Shape of Things. (Photo by Ivan Kyncl)