The actors don’t bow at the end of Neil LaBute’s “The Shape of Things,” which says something about the shape of an evening that doesn’t want a curtain call to interrupt the inevitable debate. There’s more than a touch of self-importance to the gesture, implying a devastation so complete that it couldn’t possibly be interrupted by anything so trivial as applause. But even if the play — in its world preem at the Almeida’s new King’s Cross home — isn’t nearly that hard-hitting, you can’t deny its power to enflame, especially given a predominantly American cast in top form, most notably Paul Rudd.
While one can imagine a defter staging of an episodic text that cries out for a turntable set, not Giles Cadle’s cleverly panelled all-purpose space, writer-director LaBute demonstrates an ability to cut to the quick that surpasses the thudding ironies of his monologue-driven “bash.” Some may be blown away by “The Shape of Things,” and others (women, I suspect) will loathe it, but the truth is that there hasn’t been so potentially inflammatory an American play since “Oleanna.”
As was true of Mamet’s divisive work, which came into its own (in production terms) in London, “The Shape of Things” posits the woman-as-destroyer, but with a difference: In LaBute’s highly loaded landscape, the man scarcely gets to fight back. Initially, Rudd’s Adam doesn’t see any need to. An English student and gallery attendant at an unnamed Midwestern university, Adam has fallen so hard for art grad student Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) that he will do anything for her — shed his corduroy jacket, have a nose job, stop biting his nails, let their sex be filmed. Away from the bedroom, he even agrees to forsake his affianced friends, Phillip (Frederick Weller) and Jenny (Gretchen Mol), whose relationship is undergoing its own seismic shift.
For a while, “The Shape of Things” (the title itself is sexually charged, with “thing” early on a synonym for penis) has a high old time charting the makeovers undergone in the name of love. But you don’t need the high-octane scene-change music of the Smashing Pumpkins — so loud, apparently, that on opening night it drove the Pinters out of the auditorium before the play had even begun — to anticipate that all will not be right with Adam’s transformation from a likable fellow feeling his cautious way in life to a newly minted hunk who ends up in the clinch with Jenny — as Phillip, her imminent hubby, finds out. Cued by a passing reference to Henry Higgins, LaBute is here refashioning “Pygmalion” to far more vengeful ends, with Evelyn a none-too-fair lady comprised of equal parts cunning and guile and total self-invention. Not for nothing does this devouring heroine’s initials make up the acronym EAT.
Shaw isn’t the only template in a script that reaches much further back: Adam and Evelyn are an Adam and Eve for our time, a fact italicized by the serpentlike Evelyn taking a portentous chomp out of an apple. And the fairer sex won’t be alone in resisting the demonizing of a character (think Brit-art favorite Tracey Emin crossed with Alice, the troubled lap dancer, in “Closer”) capable of holding her own against the male miscreants of LaBute’s screenplays for “In the Company of Men” and “Your Friends and Neighbors.” The more beautiful the person, the baser their actions, or to cite an exchange from the play: “You’re sick.” “But I’m nice-looking, which makes up for a lot.”
To say much else about the plot would be to give away a surprise conclusion that doesn’t so much collapse the fourth wall (though it does that, too) as it manages to rupture both the play’s couplings: Evelyn possesses many a bodily scar but knows how to inflict the mental ones that wound most, and one only wishes that LaBute didn’t feel compelled twice to invoke the Holocaust in the most hollow, gratuitous way. At such moments, “The Shape of Things” succumbs to the very “false art” that Evelyn is at pains to deride, while the narrative contains perhaps several bluffs and counterbluffs more than it can comfortably handle.
It may say something about the limitations of the character driving the play (and of an initially teary-eyed Weisz’s overeager American accent) that LaBute’s best faceoffs don’t involve Evelyn. One has to make a sizable leap of faith, for instance, to square the first scene with the second, especially given an anarchic move on Evelyn’s part that, presumably, would forever scare away (or at least appall) the nebbishy Adam. But Rudd, playing someone who says “goddang it” one minute and can quote Wilde the next, gives a stirring account of an innocent keen for experience at whatever the cost, and he’s beautifully matched with Weller’s likably jockish Phillip and Mol’s touchingly lovestruck Jenny. Collectively, they deserve the bow of which the staging deprives them, presumably because damage this hurtful leaves no room for cheers.