A kind of quasi-romance, “The Shape of Things” is about cold-blooded Evelyn, an MFA candidate, who turns Adam, a schlumpy museum guard and student at the same liberal arts college in a conservative Midwestern town, into a genuine Adonis, by changing his hair, his wardrobe, his physique - even his nose - while studiously videotaping and cataloging every step of his progress. Their relationship deepens as Adam, who, though in his mid-20’s, has had scant experience with women, falls hard for the bright and bristly Evelyn as she steadfastly pursues her alternative course of intimacy.
Adam becomes a living example of our culture’s obsession with the shape of things, even as his transformation seeps into his behavior. And what appears to be a physical make over is something else entirely as LaBute, who thrives on confounding audience expectations, presents characters that many people would consider immoral.
Ideas of good and bad whorl through LaBute’s works. He's author of such controversial films as “In the Company of Men,” (winner of the Filmmakers Trophy at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival, as well as the New York Film Critics Circle’s Award for Best First Feature), “Your Friends & Neighbors,” “Nurse Betty,” and the recent screen adaptation of A. S. Byatt’s Booker Prize-winning novel “Possession,” featuring Gwyneth Paltrow. On stage, LaBute is currently represented by “The Mercy Seat,” a 9/11 drama starring Sigourney Weaver and Liev Schreiber.
His characters -- both nasty and nice -- either outright lie or divulge such harsh realities you wish they Had lied. Sparing with clever repartee that moves the “The Shape of Things” along, the four talented actors keep the production humming throughout the minefield of slyly humorous one-liners, which increasingly hint at the explosive turn of events.
The central character is played by Laura Latreille, who bristles in her portrayal of Evelyn, a modern day Machiavelli. Hers is a fierce performance that achieves and maintains power with the same indifference to moral considerations as the 15th century theorist.
As Adam, Tommy Day Carey literally transforms from a gawky, pudgy do gooder to a good looking, almost savvy impostor. His Pygmalion portrayal is displayed through various shadings of body language along with his ability to subtly emerge from his awkward shell. In all, a strong and convincing performance.
Rounding out the cast, Walter Belenky as Phillip, Adam’s friend, and Stacy Fischer as Jenny hit all the marks as fiances unsure of their plans, but certain that it includes more than just happily ever after. Individually and as a couple, they sometimes add tense, at other time humorous, ambiguities to the proceedings.
Under the skillful direction of company manager Paul Melone --- a 2000 graduate of Boston University who was called back to his alma mater two years ago to direct a student production, which went to the finals of the American College Theater Festival at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. --- the two hour production unfolds through half a dozen venues in the small theater space, but never seems cramped due to his inventive manner of fluidly changing scenes from location to the next.
It is also evident that Melone knows how to guide his actors, a cohesive and compatible foursome who are working together for the first time. It wouldn’t be boastful to state that the maverick SpeakEasy has a bona fide hit. And not only in the theatrical sense, for “The Shape of Things” ends with a wallop, shocking many in the audience as the line between love and art blurs.
The play, in its New England premiere at SpeakEasy Stage Company, runs through February 22 at the Boston Center for the Arts.