The Shape of Things offers truthful, touching performances

Adam, an undergraduate, encounters free-spirited graduate student Evelyn (note the names, please) while working as a guard at the university art museum. Incensed by the town's prudery, which dictated covering the genitalia of a statue of God himself with vine leaves, Evelyn is about to vandalize the piece by spray-painting a large penis on it. Adam is fascinated by this lively, free-thinking woman, and doesn't try very hard to stop her. This is a funny, meet-cute scene, and for a while it seems we're in for a romantic comedy. But The Shape of Things is a play by Neil LaBute, who first gained national attention with In the Company of Men — a play (and later film) that is either misogynistic or a poke at corporate misogyny, depending on how you look at it — and who also turned in a searing comedy-drama called The Mercy Seat after 9/11, in which a contemptible couple uses the national tragedy as a means of advancing their own ugly goals. So we know there's major nasty coming, though — despite occasional hints — the scope of it isn't fully revealed until late in the proceedings.

Evelyn is an intensely manipulative woman and Adam a weak-minded chump. She persuades him to improve his appearance, work out, replace his spectacles with contact lenses and stop biting his nails. She's definitely making him more attractive, and he's gaining in confidence, but when plastic surgery enters the picture, you know things are going badly out of whack.

The play takes place in a series of short scenes that also involve a second couple: Adam's blunt, insensitive friend, Phil, and Phil's very pretty girlfriend, Jenny — on whom Adam once had a crush. Phil and Evelyn hate each other on sight, at such a high and unconvincing pitch that you have to wonder if they'll be in each other's arms eventually. Adam's slow transformation into hunkdom reawakens Jenny's interest in him. For a few seconds, you think a sexy partner swap might be in the offing. But this play is anything but sexy.

The dialogue is clever, but in the end, not quite clever enough. Periodically, the play feels like a very bright student's graduate thesis in drama — sort of like Evelyn's own MFA project. None of the characters comes across as real, and there are all kinds of disconcerting inconsistencies: Phil's inability to tell whether it's his fiancé on the phone or another Jenny; Evelyn's spray-painting her phone number on Adam's jacket (spray canisters aren't that accurate); Jenny's Marilyn Monroe-like dumb-blonde act when she's alone with Evelyn (she hasn't seemed particularly out of it before); bohemian Evelyn's highly conventional preferences in looks and clothing; the fact that Evelyn, though intensely familiar with Oscar Wilde and the aesthetic movement he helped shape, professes complete ignorance when Adam makes literary references to Pygmalion, Othello and A Tale of Two Cities that any high-schooler would recognize. Is she dumb? Lying? Or so obsessed with art that she neglected every other element of her education?

Adam, played with honesty and vulnerability by Paul Jaquith, is the most believable of the four characters; Aimee Nelson is charming in the role of Jenny, and touching in her outburst to snotty Evelyn. Though she's as dishonest as everyone else in this piece, Jenny is the easiest to sympathize with. As Evelyn, Johanna Jaquith transforms so convincingly from sexy to loathsome that by the play's end, you're aching to see her brought down. Phil, hypersexed and something of a bully, is a stock LaBute character, and he's brought to burly life by Ben Butler.

I'm having a hard time figuring out LaBute. Some of his work — Mercy Seat, Reasons to Be Pretty — strikes a fairly profound chord, and I like his iconoclasm. But at other times, he sounds like a man stuck in permanent adolescence, and absurdly obsessed — as here, and also in Fat Pig and Reasons to Be Pretty — with physical appearance. If The Shape of Things is meant to explore anything significant — say, the essential immorality of art or its push-pull between truth and artificiality, concept and executed work — it doesn't.

Still, the members of this new company give truthful, touching performances, the plot is interesting — and official prudery definitely deserves rebuke.