Rachel Weisz and Paul Rudd in The Shape of Things(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Rachel Weisz and Paul Rudd in The Shape of Things
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Mean and marvelous, Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things has more surprises than a case full of Cracker Jack boxes, and every one is neatly tucked away behind a candy coating of romantic comedy.

One of the great pleasures in watching this piece unfold, in fact, is to enjoy the exquisite craft with which it was created. These days, there aren't many heavily plotted plays that leave you guessing about their ultimate destination, but The Shape of Things genuinely catches you off-guard. (We're not going to spill the beans, and you should avoid reading any review that does). The satisfaction at the end comes from realizing that all the clues were planted in plain sight. Of course, LaBute has a well-earned reputation for pulling the rug out from underneath his characters and his audiences--witness his films In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors, and Nurse Betty, and his recent Off-Broadway play bash. He's always hiding something up his sleeve. Some call it trickery, some call it magic. Let's split the difference and call it art.

The first two-thirds of The Shape of Things suggest that the play is going to turn out to be a dark but rather funny comedy about relationships: We meet two couples and we are given every indication that the plot will twist and wind around the question of who belongs with whom. Will the feminist artist Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) remain devoted to the quirky and insecure Adam (Paul Rudd), or is she better suited to battle it out with Adam's best friend, the hunky, outspoken control freak Philip (Frederick Weller)? And what about Adam's longstanding crush on Philip's fiancée, the mild-mannered and middle class Jenny (Gretchen Mol)? Then there's the strain on the friendship between Adam and Philip; what's that relationship about, and where is it going? Tension fills the air as these four people meet and combust. The shape of things will definitely change--and so will the play's subject matter.

The four actors create an indelible ensemble. Weisz shucks her movie star glamour to play the bohemian Evelyn with a funky yet sly appeal. Rudd is adorable as the shy young man who is so happily overwhelmed by a beautiful woman's passionate nature. Weller offers an uncompromising portrait of a smart, arrogant charmer, while Mol, with the least to do, does it fetchingly. Conflict is at the heart of all of these characters, and LaBute's carefully calibrated direction keeps the tension level high. In the last third of the play, LaBute directs with even more panache as he sends three of his actors into the audience for a climactic scene that is breathtakingly audacious. The scene is so powerful that, when it ends, some members of the audience will be convinced that the show is over. It isn't: There's one more gut-wrenching confrontation to follow before the actors take their well-deserved bows.

Also deserving of bows are Giles Cadle for his all-purpose set design and Lynette Meyer for her character-creating costumes. (The clothing worn by Weisz, in particular, is deliciously inspired.) Less effective is the sound design by Fergus O'Hare, who punctuates each scene change with painfully loud rock music. At the performance we attended, a great many people were literally putting their fingers in their ears to block the noise. For this, LaBute is also at fault. Why abuse the audience in this fashion? To shock us? That's fine, but we draw the line at physical pain.

Speaking of lines, you will find them at the restrooms before and after the play; The Shape of Things is two hours and 10 minutes long without an intermission. It might seem as if LaBute is turning the famous cruelty of his films and plays upon his audience--but remember that he's a filmmaker, and consider that there has never been a two-hour-and-10 minute movie with an intermission.