There's nothing like the freedom that comes with being roundly pilloried. Having made a splash with In the Company of Men, perhaps the bitterest indictment ever of brutish male behavior, playwright/filmmaker Neil LaBute was tagged as who woulda thunk it? a misogynist. An overnight poster boy for the idea that life can be bizarrely unfair, LaBute went on to pen incendiary pieces like The Shape of Things, in which an art student named Evelyn exerts a subtle yet corrosive influence on the psyche of an impressionable undergrad who goes by the handle of Adam.
Adam and Evelyn? There's a serious temptation metaphor going on here, and it's one that only a misunderstood agent provocateur like LaBute would dare attempt. To paraphrase Janis Joplin, demonizing the female is just another word for nothin' left to lose.
In his staging of the play, director David Lee mounts his own challenge to our artistic assumptions, mostly by building his show on the oddest casting imaginable. In the pivotal role of Evelyn who meets Adam just as she's about to deface a museum piece that offends her purist sensibilities Lee has cast Heather Leonardi, a gifted actress whose name is nonetheless hardly synonymous with "femme fatale." From that very first scene, in which Evelyn averts her attention from her intended act of vandalism to seducing helpless onlooker Adam (Patrick Braillard), you can see Leonardi struggling against the palpable quality of kindness that has always marked her work. The same affected smirk keeps finding its way to her face, getting the play off to a disquietingly artificial start.
Yet in the ensuing scenes, the performance finds a malevolent comfort level. With Adam squarely in her grasp, Evelyn is free to methodically alter his outlook, his physical appearance and even his other associations. His college chums Phillip (Jason Hook) and Jenny (Erin Muroski) each suffer the fallout of Evelyn's extreme makeover, which is either turning Adam more confident, more codependent or perhaps both. Leonardi's stewardship of these events may not achieve the wicked-queen abominableness LaBute is going for, but it's suitable enough in its own right, developing into a sly toxicity that proves even a miscast Leonardi is a storytelling asset. (Or maybe it's just easy to make me forget Rachel Weisz, who played the part in LaBute's underwhelming 2003 film adaptation.)
Not as much can be said of Braillard's Adam, who is supposed to travel an arc from dopey vulnerability to wounded indignation. Instead, the actor begins on a note of unassuming semiconfidence and stays there throughout the play, drastically curtailing its drama. Hook plays Adam's boorish ex-roommate Phillip as even more boisterous than what's on the page, only settling down when the story eventually reveals the character to be something more than the voice of Adam's dormant male ego. Muroski has many fine moments as Jenny, a guileless nice girl whose lack of sophistication makes her a sacrificial lamb to Evelyn's uptown attitudes. The biggest hurdle Muroski has to overcome is having her character introduced in a four-person chat scene that's the show's biggest train wreck: No two of the four actors are on the same page tonally, a situation that's only worsened by some awkward staging that obscures key facial expressions from almost any seat in the house.
The production is better served by its smart set design, which relies entirely on clear Lucite pedestals lit up in white and some back-wall slide projections that identify each scene's intended environment ("a bedroom," etc.). The suggestion is that Adam's life is an immaculate blank canvas, one on which the aesthetically attuned but amoral Evelyn is free to "create." Still, viewers of this halfway-to-evil Shape of Things may find themselves wondering if they don't have equally Boschian masterpieces hidden away in their own relationship attics.