Neil LaBute (“Fat Pig,” “In the Company of Men”), a writer adept at exposing the ugly, vicious and domineering elements of relationships, won plaudits for “The Shape of Things” in London and New York, and it was filmed in 2003. Clever plotting, a fine cast and LaBute’s cutting, corrosive wit are all assets in the Pasadena Playhouse Balcony Theater’s L.A. premiere of the show. Material this incendiary guarantees audience involvement, although muted confrontations and an air of restraint tend to make many scenes sizzle rather than explode.
An intriguing opening presents Midwestern art student Evelyn (Vonessa Martin) climbing over velvet ropes in a museum in order to spraypaint a nude statue because the conservative town’s stuffed shirts placed a fig leaf over its penis (the “thing” of the title). Museum guard Adam (Brad Price), a bespectacled nerd, understandably objects to this act of vandalism, but Evelyn’s confidence and audacity, somewhat inexplicably, win him over.
A self-defined dork with women, Adam willingly acquiesces to the Professor Higgins-like changes Evelyn demands, and before long he’s jogging, dieting, wearing contact lenses and submitting to a needless nose job.
These events have an entertainingly horrifying fascination, as we fight to figure out Evelyn’s motives and wonder whether Adam will eventually rebel against being re-created.
Price is superb as Evelyn’s willing human experiment, handling the dialogue with consummate skill. He’s at his best when informing Evelyn, “You’re dangerously close to owning me,” ruefully adding, “I just signed my relationship death warrant.”
A devouring personality with the ominous initials EAT, Evelyn continues her merciless makeover ways, undermining Adam’s friendships with outspoken roommate Phillip (Shawn Lee), who expresses violent alarm at Adam’s vanishing identity, and Phillip’s agreeable fiancee Jenny (Sara Hennessy).
Problems escalate after Adam and Jenny share an unplanned kiss, and Evelyn uses it as a weapon to insist that he drop his former pals if he loves her.
Martin, under Damaso Rodriguez’s perceptive direction, captures Evelyn’s cunning and succeeds in making her alluringly mysterious. But she frequently holds back, especially in scenes with the resentful Phillip. We feel Martin has the acting strength to break loose and go further with this character, yet her understatement — combined with Rodriguez’s discreet helming — minimizes the power of the revelatory twist ending. Sexual moments Evelyn shares with Adam also are too tranquil and tasteful.
Lee’s Phillip is the only protagonist permitted to demonstrate genuine displays of anger, and his eruptions are potently performed and dramatically welcome. Lee manages the double task of being obnoxious and still showing compassionate concern for his manipulated friend. Hennessy’s Jenny is a less colorful part, but she gives it an affecting honesty.
Discussions about what constitutes art are neatly interwoven into the overall tapestry, and Melissa Teoh’s flexible, panel-moving scenic design keeps the sequences from feeling episodic. One by one, every detail — including Christie Wright’s resourceful lighting — is firmly in place. All that’s needed are some added emotional strokes that a gifted group with a hard-hitting name like “Furious Theater Company” is perfectly capable of providing.