- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 16, 2002

Neil LaBute's "The Shape of Things" is a cruel wonder, a beautifully made and streamlined morality play with modern sensibilities and age-old questions about art and beauty.

Mr. LaBute gives the boy-meets-girl plotline a twisted tweak in his tale of how contemporary society esteems beauty above all. Adam (Scott Barrow) and Evelyn (Holly Twyford) "meet cute." She is a sexy, punked-out graduate student wielding a spray-paint can and intent on defacing a statue for the sake of art and truth; he is the geeky college security guard who sort of tries to stop her.

Evelyn commits two audacious acts that day, one in the name of art and one in the name of love, when she picks up Adam and takes him to dinner. Things zoom into overdrive shortly afterward as they date exclusively. Adam even introduces her to his friends, the arrogant jock Phillip (Justin G. Krauss) and his sweet fiancee, Jenny (Margot White).

Adam and Evelyn together are like a photograph with a key image ripped out. She is brashly gorgeous and blatantly sexual in her tight clothes and strutting manner; he has taped-up eyeglasses and schlumpy clothes and, at 20, the hips of a middle-aged white woman. "What does she see in him?" you uncharitably start to wonder, even though intellectually you know that Adam is a kind, intelligent and loyal soul. But they don't even get each other's allusions, Adam is into classical literature and movies; Evelyn is into TV.

This modern take on the Pygmalion parable has Adam flourishing in Evelyn's company. Just from being around her "amazing" aura, as he calls it, Adam starts exercising, cuts out junk food and gets contact lenses, new clothes and new confidence. A nip and a tuck there, and Adam has entered hottie territory all because of Evelyn, he says.

What he does with this newfound beauty and, more interestingly, how people view him now that he isn't fat and nerdy, is the crux of "The Shape of Things." Adam suddenly is seen for the first time. People notice him instead of ignoring him. The mere sight of Adam now evokes feelings of jealousy, competitiveness and desire in his friends Phillip and Jenny. They don't know how to handle the "new" Adam; all they know is that they want a piece of him.

At this point, "The Shape of Things" begins to resemble a clever romantic comedy in which two sets of lovers begin to question whether they are with the right partners. Mr. LaBute makes astute and cutting observations that we treat pretty people better than the rest of the populace. Not only that, but the beautiful can get away with more and that they know it and use it to their advantage.

However, in the second act, Mr. LaBute lets loose a zinger of a plot twist that is so savage you just sit there in stunned silence and watch the horror unfold. To give it away would be as cruel as the motivation revealed, but suffice it to say that what happens will leave you questioning whether you can ever really trust anybody.

On a more esoteric level, the play makes you ponder the nature of art, whether anything an artist does can be considered art (were Picasso's fruit peelings masterpieces? His stains on a dinner napkin?) and whether the statement "Art is subjective" is a valid one.

This play of ideas is brought home through four wonderfully deep, searching performances and direction by Will Pomerantz that keeps things moving at a dazzling clip but still leaves time for the truths to sink in.

The role of Evelyn is tricky because she is someone who, on the surface, seems to operate on pure instinct, caprice and emotion. Miss Twyford makes her a darling, a supremely deluded upgrade on Holly Golightly from "Breakfast at Tiffany's" adorable, irresistibly unhinged and harboring a big secret. When she proclaims, as only the young can, "I am an artist" and "Art is all," you both believe her and chuckle at her idealism.

If Miss Twyford is all fire and ice, Mr. Barrow's Adam is warmth and earth. In the beginning, he seems to be an unformed mass; you can see glimpses of promise and potential here and there, but nothing concrete. Then Mr. Barrow transforms in front of your eyes into something out of the J. Crew catalog. But beneath the six-pack abs and the cool clothes, he is still the tentative Adam, albeit an Adam who silently crows that he beat the system, that a geeky guy got the hottest, hippest girl on campus. Mr. Barrow does an astounding job of portraying seismic changes outside and in.

As the friends, Miss White brings finely shaded colorations to the role of Jenny, a character who is not as flashy as Evelyn but certainly is more complicated than people give her credit for being. Her foil is Mr. Krauss' cocky jock Phillip, who is all for Adam's self-improvements until Adam begins to encroach on his territory.

Deb Booth's coolly modern set recalls a gallery or restaurant space where one projects emotions and reactions instead of having them thrust upon one. The spare beige, black and silver color scheme is made even more transient by having all the props whip on and off on casters. The contemporary angle is played up by jaunty pop dance music that blares between scenes.

"The Shape of Things" will no doubt bend and reshape your thinking about how far we should go for love and acceptance. After all, who ever said all change is good?


****

WHAT: "The Shape of Things" by Neil LaBute

WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturdays and Nov. 19, 26; 7 p.m. Sundays; 2 p.m. matinees Saturdays and Sundays; through Dec. 15

WHERE: Studio Theatre, 1333 P St. NW

TICKETS: $30.25 to $44.25

PHONE: 202/332-3300

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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