The Shape of Metal
nytheatre.com review by Anthony C.E. Nelson
September 11, 2007
Sometimes a performance is so excellent that it can transcend the mediocre script its mired in. Roberta Maxwell's feisty, sex-obsessed, geriatric sculptor doesn't quite transform Thomas Kilroy's The Shape of Metal into must-see theatre, but you could certainly find worse ways to spend an evening than traipsing over to see her dominate the stage at 59E59.
Kilroy's script focuses on Maxwell's Nell, a world-famous sculptor nearing the end of her life. In her tiny, cramped apartment, she faces the ghosts of selfish decisions she made in her past, in particular the way she balanced her own wants with those of her family. When the lights come up, we see Nell huddled in a chair in the middle of Lex Liang's wonderfully cramped set. She is briefly visited by a dream of her long-estranged daughter, Grace, whom we will later learn she hasn't seen since she vanished 30 years ago. The dream drives her into a frenzy, and she awakes screaming Grace's name, only to discover that her daughter Judith is visiting, there to tell Nell that her old paramour Eddie, Judith's father, has died. Before he died, however, Eddie told Judith that Nell knew more about Grace's sudden disappearance than she has let on.
This mystery drives the play forward, and Kilroy tries to make the play a dialogue on the selfishness of an artist and the effects of living with a genius on those around her. The mystery is, unfortunately, pretty easy to figure out, and most of the play's pleasure comes from Maxwell's portrayal of an agile mind trapped in a failing body. She remains trapped in her chair for much of the play, only moving with complete freedom in flashbacks, yet manages to hold our attention as she rails against her fate, bursting out crying, "I don't want to die!" in the middle of a conversation. She takes great joy in talking candidly about her sexual experiences to Judith, partly to annoy her daughter (who is a lesbian), but also clearly because she has always been a sensual being.
Maxwell is clearly the standout, but Julia Gibson gives a solid performance in the much less showy role of Judith. I'm afraid Molly Ward hasn't quite mastered the Irish accent for the role of Grace, and her performance was a bit unsteady. Theatre legend Brian Doyle Murray has directed some strong performances, but the pace is slow and there are some places where the show feels like it was blocked for a bigger space and no one has bothered to restage it for the small confines of 59E59.
Kilroy writes some wonderful dialogue, but overall the plot of The Shape of Metal feels too rusty to keep up any kind of suspense.