John Steppling's "The Shaper" has transferred from the Night House to the MET Theatre. A woman at Saturday night's performance muttered something exasperated about its not being exactly a Noel Coward play. No, but who ever said it was?
Think rather of David Mamet's "American Buffalo" or Franz Xaver Kroetz's "Mensch Meier," with the proviso that Steppling isn't copying either playwright. But his people, too, live marginal lives in a squalid metropolis, and have trouble matching up their thoughts and their words. They know what they mean, but it always comes out less.
Another comparison is to the film, "Stranger Than Paradise." Steppling's play is put together like that: grainy, laconic scenes separated by leader tape. You don't see where it's going, and in the end you can't say exactly where it has been.
But somewhere . Drab as Steppling's characters are, you understand that, to themselves, they are not drab. They count. You can also believe that they live in Los Angeles--even if it's not your Los Angeles. And in this play, unlike some of Steppling's others, something happens.
Those are Bud's last lines: "Something has happened." Bud (Lee Kissman) was a champion surfer 15 years ago. Now he runs a surfboard shop with his buddy Del (Scott Paulin)--a blind for Del's cocaine operation.
In the first act Del is in jail, leaving Bud and the three women in the story--leftover groupies--at a loss. (Noreen Hennessy plays Sherri, Laura Owens plays Jill, and Elizabeth Ruscio plays the newcomer, Reesa.)
Also waiting around is Sherri's hangdog ex-husband, Felix (Jack Slater). Officially, he's come for drugs, but maybe he hopes that Sherri will get interested again. We're not clear on that or on much of what motivates these people, because they aren't either.
Nothing's happening for them. But what it is, is--something might turn up. When Scott gets out of jail, everybody gets a little more focused. Friendly Reesa sets up a party where she can service both Del and Bud. That fizzles, maybe because Del's real interest is being alone with his buddy. It is the play's one scene of closeness, with a high component of latent homosexuality.
Finally Bud and Del start knocking off fast-food joints and Fotomats, and that's when something happens--which, again, we have to guess. Somehow this doesn't feel as if Steppling is playing games with us. Rather it's as if we're observing the opaque quality of other people's lives, where we never do get the full story.
Nor do we resent his cutting off other scenes on inconsequential sentences, before the drama has started. These people aren't capable of a lot of drama. Much of what they feel they have to swallow particularly Bud, who seems to have made a vow to himself not to open himself one chink to anybody. This may have looked like stoicism 10 years ago, but he's now beginning to suggest a terminally depressed vagrant.
Steppling doesn't lament for Bud or Del or the girls. He catches them with his camera, and lets us decide what to make of them. That's true of his work as director too. His actors aren't encouraged to tip their character's secrets--they show only as much as the character wants seen.
That's refreshing when measured against the spill-your-guts-out methods of a play like "The Hands of Its Enemy." Yet Steppling gives a certain size to his characters by spacing them almost like talking sculptures (and spacing their lines just as deliberately).
This is too portentous sometimes, but in the end one can see "The Shaper" as a ceremony, not just some dim Polaroid shots. It is not a Noel Coward play, but it has its own kind of intelligence, its own style. There are even some laughs as Slater and Paulin start trying to dope out what's "under it"--that is, life. Cryptic as "The Shaper" is, there's nothing random about it. Steppling, too, is a shaper. 'THE SHAPER'
John Steppling's play, presented by L.A. Theatre Works at the MET Theatre. Producer Susan Albert Loewenberg. Director Steppling. Assistant director Maurya Wickstrom. Lighting design Karen Musser. Set design Debbie Krikun and Lance Crush. Taped sound Paul Lacques. Stage manager Claire Baker. Costumes Iona Crush. Lighting assistant Erika Preston. With Lee Kissman, Laura Owens, Noreen Hennessy, Elizabeth Ruscio, Jack Slater and Scott Paulin. Plays at 8 p.m. Fridays-Sundays. Closes Feb. 24. 649 N. Poinsettia. Tickets $10. 827-0808.