Owen Carey
The Shape of Things Artists Repertory Theatre, at the IFCC 5340 N Interstate Thurs-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm, through Nov 17, 241-1278, $22

N eil LaBute must have been royally screwed over by someone he really cared about at some very vulnerable time in his life. Why else would he write so many plays with protagonists that invariably get cheated on by their partners or back stabbed by their friends, or, usually, a combination of both?

In The Shape of Things, Labute continues his usual diatribe with a relationship that seems doomed from the start. With greasy hair and taped glasses, Adam (Neil Starbird) is a nerdy college student. He works two part-time jobs to pay for school, reads scads of literature, and slouches about with a distinct lack of charisma or confidence. It is thus surprising when a hot, sophisticated, intelligent art student named Evelyn (Sarah Overman) takes an interest in him. Within days, they are embroiled in a serious relationship. Evelyn's unsolicited affection is weird but the way Adam panders to her is downright unsettling. He changes his clothing style, loses the glasses, and even gets a nose job in order to attain the persona that he thinks will make her happy. His transformation bothers his close friends, an engaged couple named Phillip (Rudy Nehrling) and Jenny (Clare O' Sheeran). Since this is a LaBute piece, however, Jenny's worries about Adam don't stop her from cheating with him. Soon after, Evelyn messes around with Phillip.

This tale would be standard soap opera fare were LaBute not so damned smart. He throws in fascinating ideas about the fine line between art and life, and culminates his deceptively simple tale with a plot twist that is quite mind-boggling, even if director Jon Kretzu stages it all with the flair of a wooden board. In every scene the characters do nothing but stand around, confined by a set design that is conceptually brilliant, but awkward on a practical level. Still, the performances are stellar, particularly Overman's sadistically manipulative Evelyn. She is the play's narrative thrust, and her delivery of the climactic monologue is a clinic in understated acting.

The final moments of this discomforting show bring LaBute's fascination with deceit into the realm of the epic. If he is using his plays to exorcise demons, then it is hard to imagine that he is not purged after having written this script. Few people, if any, have ever been as arbitrarily and brutally fucked over as Adam is. It's difficult to watch, but impossible to look away. JUSTIN SANDERS