Irritation is a key weapon in the aesthetic arsenal of Neil LaBute, the playwright and filmmaker whose latest piece of provocation arrives at the aptly uncomfortable Promenade Theater after a warm reception at London’s Almeida Theater. Thundering bursts of Smashing Pumpkins recordings blare from the sound system between scenes of “The Shape of Things,” effectively keeping the audience in a state of mild disorientation not unlike that experienced by the play’s central character, an affable undergraduate whose life is neatly upended by the designs of an eccentric artist.
Adam (Paul Rudd) and Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) meet not-so-cute, as she’s getting ready to perform an act of vandalism — in the name of artistic liberty, of course — on a statue in the college-town museum where he works. For reasons that remain mysterious, Adam is instantly smitten with the willfully odd Evelyn, an art student with an aggressive personality and a carefully mismatched wardrobe.
Evelyn may not have the word “trouble” tattooed on her forehead, but it’s hard to believe a man of Adam’s apparent intelligence wouldn’t heed warning signs that include her insistence on videotaping their sexual encounters and an antagonistic attitude toward his newly betrothed pals Philip (Frederick Weller) and Jenny (Gretchen Mol).
The ever-appealing Rudd does his considerable best to play up Adam’s gawkiness, and we are told repeatedly of his lack of success with women, but his gullibility — and malleability — stretch credibility past the breaking point. (As an English major who seasons his talk with literary allusions, he might be expected to pick up on the portentous significance of their coupled names.)
LaBute’s central conceit seems to have been inspired by the work of artists like Tracey Emin, who recycle the emotional and physical detritus of their everyday lives into art installations. In this case it’s not her own life but Adam’s that provides Evelyn with her raw material, as she begins sculpting him to suit her own ends.
This isn’t to defuse the kind of shocker ending that characterized the horror stories in LaBute’s last New York production, “Bash”: The essential trajectory of the play’s plot is pretty clear from early on, and the high visibility of its endgame is problematic for a writer more adept at concocting grisly theses about human misbehavior than at shaping nuanced characters. Once you’ve cottoned onto the dark joke that gives the play form and purpose, watching it is like observing hamsters wend their way through a Habitrail.
The only surprises come when LaBute, who seems meticulously determined to insure the audience’s contempt for all of his characters, gives one of them an extra jab.
This is hardly necessary in the case of the sweet but dim dupe Adam, the selfish cad Philip and the flagrantly freakish Evelyn — played to the irritating hilt by Weisz, all too convincingly impersonating a Gwen Stefani-esque woman-child with a husky squeak of a voice, pigtails and gangly pre-teen mannerisms.
But for some time Jenny is a likable, sympathetic figure, and she’s played with remarkable grace and sensitivity by Mol, a familiar name from movies making an effective New York stage debut.
But then Jenny is made to chatter witlessly about her affection for “the arts,” meaning, “You know, going to movies and stuff.” She goes on to observe that her taste in pictures is less “artsy” than Philip’s — and lists such “artsy” titles as “Aliens,” “Dune” and “Twelve Monkeys.”
It is to Mol’s considerable credit that our affection for Jenny survives this unnecessary sneer, and indeed Mol is the only performer who manages to transcend the limitations imposed by the writing and create a character of real nuance.
It’s a small victory, but in its way a pleasing one: Even in the cynical world so carefully manufactured by the playwright, real humanity reasserts itself, in the form of a talented actress capable of turning the tables on her character’s creator. Thanks to Mol, a gentle human face is superimposed on LaBute’s macabre cartoon. That’s a kind of vandalism — and also a kind of artistry — that gives the heart a happy little lift.