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THE SHAPE OF THINGS

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The idea that art is subjective is not novel. It's a familiar theme that crops up often in theatre. But in this edgy Neil LaBute comedy—about a shy college student who falls for an outspoken art major—this timeworn concept is no mere retread. Showing off his characteristic biting wit and a penchant for taking questionable behavior to extremes, LaBute craftily explores how morality, as much as aesthetics, plays a significant role in shaping our views on art. In the process, he pushes his main theme to new heights—or new depths, depending on your perspective. Ultimately this West Coast premiere is a shockingly hilarious treatise shaded with visceral appeal.

Set on a college campus, the script focuses on the unlikely relationship that blossoms between Adam (Michael Eric Strickland), a smart but socially awkward English major, and Evelyn (Stacy Solodkin), an uninhibited art major. LaBute cleverly sets up the tumult that characterizes their relationship in the opening scene, in which Adam, working as a museum security guard, catches Evelyn just as she's about to deface a sculpture with spray paint. At first appalled by Evelyn's actions and opinions—her intention is to make a statement against censorship—Adam is eventually taken by her brazen approach. Soon they begin an intense affair that effects both external and internal changes in Adam and piques the concern of his friends, Philip (Jay Boyer) and Jenny (Robyn Cohen). Ultimately the relationship culminates in a surprising event that bluntly underscores the play's hypotheses about art and morality.

Under Richard Stein's assertive direction, this bold staging is explosively funny and arresting. Despite an intermissionless two-hour-plus running time, there's never a dull or restless moment thanks to Stein and a well-oiled cast that delivers LaBute's sharp dialogue with deadly accuracy. The show's hard-driving soundtrack also sticks in the mind and keeps the momentum going between scenes.

As Adam, Strickland is the most appealing personality here, and not just because LaBute has designed his character that way. His softhearted demeanor and dry deadpan consistently reinforce Adam's likeability. He's also the perfect foil for Solodkin's aggressive Evelyn. Despite unevenness in the opening scenes, Solodkin turns in an enigmatic performance that keeps us guessing as to whether she's a good or bad influence on impressionable Adam.

Cohen and Boyer round out the cast as the play's other mismatched couple, Philip and Jenny, who each have a stake in Adam's strange metamorphosis. Cohen's Jenny, who falls for Adam despite being engaged to Philip, is a touchingly vulnerable character. In stark contrast Boyer portrays the suspicious Philip with a cool, unnerving aloofness. Barely keeping Philip's jealousies and resentment in check, Boyer adroitly accentuates the peculiar unease that permeates LaBute's provocative script.

"The Shape of Things," presented by and at Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach. Tues.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2 & 7 p.m. June 1-30. $38-45. (949) 497-2787.

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