From cowboy movies of the Wild West to space age science fiction novels, new frontiers have long provided effective backdrops for dramatic storytelling. Spanning the years 1982 to 1992, Jonathan Wallace's new play shapeshifter, directed by Glory Sims Bowen, sets a family drama against the frontier of computer software development. The dotcom boom, which spawned enormous change in everything from corporate culture to sense of community to conceptions of cool, ought to serve as an engagingly fraught environment in which to contemplate adaptation. Yet Wallace's text never succeeds in mining the implications of the bourgeoning field for all they are worth. Early in the production, one gets the feeling that were the Malloys a family of cabinetmakers or chemists, shapeshifter would be no more or less effective.
What might have been a fascinating study in the human metaphors implicit in software design instead becomes merely a standard family drama: a story of how a blandly dysfunctional childhood (dad died; mom went nuts) haunts the siblings throughout their adult lives. The Malloys are textbook cases of sibling pecking order. Liam (Shane Jerome), the eldest sibling, brims with business acumen and bitter entitlement while Deirdre (Shelley Virginia), the baby of the family, is a creative thinker and resolutely antiestablishment. Awkward middle child Aidan (V. Orion Delwaterman) finds himself torn between the two.
Happily, the production is remarkably well cast. As the grown siblings, Jerome, Virginia and Delwaterman convey subtle familial characteristics underneath each character's nicely developed idiosynchracies. Interestingly, the change the Malloys' experience over the years is most apparent as reflected in the women who love them. Deirdre's girlfriend Victoria (Yvonne Roen) and Liam's girlfriend Darcy (Jennifer Boehm) initially appear as two-dimensional comic clichés (an angry dyke and a ditzy actress, respectivly). Both Roen and Boehm demonstrate considerable skill in transforming their roles into genuinely compelling characters.
Set on a beach in Mantauk, the play requires a feeling of outdoorsy openness. For a play staged in the intimate TBG Arts Center Studio Theatre, that presents a challenge which scenic designer Stephanie Tucci meets admirably: the entire space is painted in seascape blues. Ryan Metzler's light design enhances the feeling of openess. Costumes, designed by David Thompson, help indicate both passage of time and character quirks. That Liam's socks continually match his preppy shirts is a particularly inspired touch.
The play is at its best during the dramatic outbursts and emotional meltdowns that serve as centerpieces to each of the play’s three acts. Bowen adeptly finds the precise comedy that keeps the scenes from dissolving into full-blown melodrama without sacrificing their intensity or dramatic import. The implication that this is a family only truly at home when at furious odds with itself, however, does not make up for the uneven hesitancy of the scenes that surround the explosions.
Frustratingly, the script often requires that multiple characters remain present even amidst intensely personal conflict between just two of them. Though that impropriety is occasionally acknowledged (“you have a wonderful sense of time and place,” scoffs Liam to Darcy at the end of Act II), Wallace ought to have tried simply granting his characters exits. Instead, the production has long periods in which actors are forced to stare politely into space on a stage far too intimate for their passivity to feel plausible.
Anyone interested in a new play’s depiction of American family drama should find in shapeshifter a pleasant evening at the theater. Those seeking a meditation on the implications of dotcom culture will have to keep waiting.