Shape of Things Gives DTC its First Neil Labute; Watertower's Loop Fest Offers Eclectic Lineup of Shows

Neil LaBute and Nora Ephron. Now there's a cage match waiting to happen. LaBute, the reigning American writer of terse stage and screen dramedies about women who love men who hate women, wrote one, The Shape of Things, about a man-hating woman who does to one nice guy what LaBute's mean male characters usually do to nice girls. With LaBute you never get near a feel-good Ephronian denouement.As the first in the trilogy of LaBute's "Beauty Plays," The Shape of Things has just opened for a few months in rolling repertory with the other two, Fat Pig (opening March 19), and the newest of the trio, reasons to be pretty (a regional premiere opening April 9), at Dallas Theater Center at the Wyly Theatre. They're all being staged in the Wyly's sixth-floor studio space, a 110-seater so tight it's like watching actors under a microscope.

For Shape, that works. The acting has a fascinating precision worth studying up close, with an excellent four-member cast, directed by DTC company member Matthew Gray, moving around the tiny square stage in a casual then increasingly tense tango.

The play begins in an art museum with these words from its part-time security guard (and an English major) Adam (Steven Walters) to art student Evelyn (DTC's favorite ingénue, Abbey Siegworth): "You stepped over the line." It's a throwaway, but also a clue. Evelyn and Adam flirt and connect. He's a shy, slumping schlemiel, easily influenced by the priggish, pretty girl he meets as she's about to deface a sculpture of God "because it isn't the truth." Before long, under her prodding, Adam has dropped 20 pounds, started wearing contacts, had his nose fixed and ditched his baggy outerwear for fashionable blazers. His best friends (played by Lee Trull and Aleisha Force) notice the changes and don't entirely approve of Evelyn's overbearing influence. How far will Adam go with the makeover to keep Evelyn in his bed?

With its repeated allusions to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Pygmalion and Kafka's The Metamorphosis, the sickening twist at the end of The Shape of Things is signaled with all the subtlety of a noon whistle. It's still unsettling, that's for sure. LaBute, that rascal, wants all of us to walk away from his cautionary tale of Adam and Evelyn tempted to mentally calculate how many little unshaped "things" keep our own significant other just that much short of perfection.

Bedroom Farce at Theatre Three short-sheets its comic potential. Director Jac Alder has a thing for playwright Alan Ayckbourn— this is the second Ayckbourn play he's done this season—but maybe it's time to store these stale bits of British folderol in a box under the bed for a while.

This one's set in three bedrooms, stair-stepped on Jeffrey Schmidt's scenery, in three London houses. The old-fashioned bed, with mattresses so thick it takes a step-ladder to get on, belongs to Ernest (played by Terry Vandivort) and Delia (Connie Nelson), an upper-crust older couple dithering around before dinner. The cluttered second bedroom is at the new home of fun couple Malcolm (Jason Kennedy) and Kate (Tiffany Lonsdale-Hands), who are hosting a party, or would be if he'd stop pulling silly practical jokes on her. The third is the sleek bedroom of young marrieds Nick (Linus Craig) and Jan (Ginger Goldman). He's down in the back and in bed for the night, while she's off to the get-together at Malcolm and Kate's.

A fourth couple, Trevor (B.J. Cleveland) and Susannah (Jody Rudman), turn up as guests at the party house, where inexplicably, hostess Kate is stuck near-naked under the bedcovers (this is a British farce...don't ask) and never makes it to the living room. Blustering Trevor and insecure Susannah fight over his attraction to old girlfriend Jan, and the party is ruined.

Eventually, displaced Trevor ends up sleeping in Nick and Jan's bed. Susannah piles in with mother-in-law Delia, displacing Ernest. And Kate and Malcolm, for reasons related to IKEA furniture, never get to sleep at all.

Some of this might be amusing if it were conducted lickety-split, with scenes jumping from bedroom to bedroom at quick-cut pace. But no, director Alder has the lights doing sloooow fades in the transitions. Nothing kills comedy like a slow fade.

It's up to the actors to try to caffeinate the proceedings. Cleveland and Nelson are natural knockabout comics, but they're hampered by scene partners who are zing-free. The funniest performance comes from Linus Craig, the bedbound actor who acts rings around everyone else while barely moving a muscle.

Really, though, this wet blanket farce isn't worth getting out of bed for.

Get up and stay up for the Out of the Loop Fringe Festival at Addison's WaterTower Theatre through March 14. The ninth annual celebration of comedy, drama, music and dance features 20 of the best new young companies and individual performers trying out experimental work. Performances fill WaterTower's three venues, with weekends packed with shows going on simultaneously from 2 p.m. to nearly midnight.

Catch these: Broadway Bound, starring the Three Redneck Tenors of America's Got Talent TV fame. The classically trained singers, based in Dallas, are Matthew Lord (as Billy Joe), Blake Davidson (Billy Billee) and Alex Bumpas (Billy Bob). With a loose storyline about how the tenors are shooting for stardom on the Great White Way, the show mixes roof-raising sangin' with some corny (but likable) comedy bits. Performed on the Main Stage at 7:30 p.m. March 11, 8 p.m. March 12, 2 and 8 p.m. March 13, and 2 p.m. March 14.

Power Lunch, a one-act by Oscar-winning American Beauty screenwriter Alan Ball, takes an absurdly comic look at gender roles and stereotypes. When a handsome young man (Undermain Theatre company member Newton Pittman) shares a lunch table with a pretty stranger (Kara Torvik Smith), they start a frantic power grab over everything from the chairs to the attentions of the waiter (Beau Trujillo) and waitress (Catherine DuBord), who play a weird gender-switch game. Every few minutes, sexy dance music sends the lunch duo into a rhythmic mating ritual. Silly fun from Second Thought Theatre, directed by Greg MacPherson. Performed in the Studio Theatre at 11 a.m. March 13 and 7:30 p.m. March 14.

I Sing!, performed by the new Club 119 Productions, is a so-so R-rated (for language) musical with a couple of good performances worth discovering. Angel Velasco and Alexander Ross, who co-starred in Uptown Players' Altar Boyz last season, are the vocal standouts as two of five young singles in a totally sung-through study of the coupling and uncoupling of a group of friends over a two-week period. Reminiscent of Avenue Q (sans puppets and jokes), with shades of Falsettoland and Company in the melodies, the two-hour show gets a bit too earnest in its deconstruction of Gen-Y angst. But it has its moments, especially when those guys are singing solos. Performed in the Studio Theatre at 2 p.m. March 13.