Richard Stein's observant direction lets Neil LaBute's play speak for itself rather than lapse into polemic, and Stacy Solodkin, Michael Eric Strickland, Robyn Cohen and Jay Boyer skillfully play a group of differing personalities sensitive to the shifting currents that make up the conversational tone of anxious young people.

“The Shape of Things” will get you talking. Richard Stein’s observant direction lets Neil LaBute’s play speak for itself rather than lapse into polemic, and Stacy Solodkin, Michael Eric Strickland, Robyn Cohen and Jay Boyer skillfully play a group of differing personalities sensitive to the shifting currents that make up the conversational tone of anxious young people.

As the play begins, Evelyn steps over the velvet rope to spray-paint a male Fornicelli nude — a protest gesture — when she’s interrupted by Adam, a plainclothes museum security guard.

She’s a feisty, argumentative activist who can get under your skin like a blood blister; he’s diffident, cerebral, a bit dorky with his plastic eyeglasses, worn corduroy jacket and bent-back old man walk.

Both are students at a small-town California college. She majors in art, he in English lit. At first, it appears a case of the attraction of opposites.

She’s working on an unspecified “installation thingie” for her graduate thesis and has all the smart art-world jargon about truth as a matter of perception and how different people can think different things about a work of art and all of them can be right.

To her, he’s a bit of a square. Where she sees “creative conceptualism” and courage in a colleague’s performance art, he’s repelled by the sight of a woman painting her father’s portrait with one of her bloody tampons.

By this time Evelyn is videotaping the both of them in bed. She’s already started a series of makeovers on Adam. Soon the changes — buff body, teased hair, contact lenses, nose job, Tommy Hilfiger yachtsman jacket — come to the attention of his best friend Philip and especially Philip’s fiancee Jenny. Adam has become a hottie. But what he’s doing for love has a disturbing affect on his friends.

In the West Coast debut of “The Shape of Things,” you might think you’re seeing a post-feminist “Pygmalion,” where it’s the guy who comes alive through the girl’s conception and love triumphs either way.

But this is LaBute, who knows a thing or two about Evelyn’s insistence on the ruthlessness of art. As it turns out, Adam himself is “the installation thingie,” reconceived and re-created by Evelyn, who’s mounted before and after displays, recording everything and turning up every Adam artifact, including his funky old boxer shorts.

An amazing thing happens at this point: LaBute’s needle turns away from his characters and into the audience. As giddy Evelyn steps out front and prattles on in defiant self-explanation, the whole panorama of sacred bad-boy art, from Cellini through Rimbaud through the Surrealists, Dadaists, Absurdists and postmodernists forms an invisible backdrop to the belief (now gospel among the glitterati and most of the rest of us) that art is beyond judgment and the artist unaccountable to the moral and ethical considerations that govern normal human relations.

There’s no question Evelyn has pulled off a brilliant expose of our assumptions about each other — in our fast-forward media-charged world, the shape of things is the look of things. And she has all her smoothed-out arguments locked in cruise control.

But LaBute isn’t through with us. Adam tells her there is a moral consideration; he exposes her as a kind of cultural fascist, beyond remorse and self-examination. “Somebody else always has to pay for people like you,” he says.

But the last scene shows Adam standing in a circle of light with his back to us, his torso flexed, his stud-puppet metamorphosis now irreversible. Right or wrong, Evelyn really did create something, not just the new Adam, but a mirror for all of us to look at. Beyond her duplicity is a contemporary truth after all.

Solodkin’s confident and energetic Evelyn draws a blank only when asked to look at herself. Strickland’s Adam is not a clay figure, but someone with his own tastes and knowledge, aware of the compromises of being first himself, then someone transformed.

Cohen’s Jenny is a fundamentally decent girl driven out of her engagement by the complications of the people around her. Boyer brings a dark Tom Cruise-like sharpness and geniality to the rudely self-confident Philip, angered and confused by betrayal.

Dwight Richard Odle’s set captures the sterile self-consciousness of young adults locked in a kind of protracted adolescence.

The Shape of Things

Moulton Theater, 420 seats; $48

Production

A Laguna Playhouse presentation of a Neil LaBute play. Directed by Richard Stein. Sound design, David Edwards.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Dwight Richard Odle; lighting, Tom Ruzika; production stage manager, Nancy Staiger. Opened May 28, 2002, reviewed June 4. Running time: 120 MIN.

Cast

With: Jay Boyer, Robyn Cohen, Stacy Solodkin, Michael Eric Strickland.
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