Playwright/screenwriter/director Neil LaBute's critics—and there are a lot of them—like to accuse him of being a woman-hater and an easy cynic about human relationships. While the jury is still sequestered on that latter charge, astute viewers know LaBute is more a misanthrope than misogynist, one who trashes both sexes' despicable conduct toward each other. But he saves his most poisonous pens for the guys. As he skewers their brutish sexual behaviors, alpha-dog mentalities, ignorances and cruelties, the knees of the reactionaries (both left and right) start to jerk.

Scratch a misanthrope, and underneath is someone routinely disappointed with people and their lousy manners. LaBute is a moralist who is far more interested in dialectics than in tarring everyone with the same shitty brush. As provocateur, his m.o. is to introduce two characters—one controlling and wholly amoral, one borderline and pathetic—and have the audience identify with the weaker. Just as you begin to think “classic liberal underdog story,” the inadequate party grows dissatisfied with their bitch status and eventually adopts the often-horrific behavior of the more powerful character.

LaBute doesn't swerve from that preoccupation in his harsh play The Shape of Things, pairing up unequally matched couples and then letting them loose on one another. Adam (Shane Salk) is a dorky English major who is sexually inexperienced and naive. He meets radical artist Evelyn (Leah McKendrick) as she protests censorship by spray-painting a penis on a fig-leafed statue in a museum. Opposites attract, he falls in love, and so begins the long, slow process of shedding his former nerd self to get closer to her expectations of him. Adam's abrasive best friend is the macho Philip (Nate Robertson), who's prone to cheating on his girlfriend Jenny (Julina Creamer) and bad-mouthing feminists. As Adam sheds excess weight, his Coke-bottle glasses and hideous corduroy jacket with patches on the elbows, Jenny sees what she's missing and starts straying from her fiance.

To say more would be to ruin the surprises—and there are plenty of them in this very good production, adroitly directed by John Benitz in Chapman University's black-box studio. It's the perfect place to see this intimate, uncomfortable comedy/drama, with Don Guy's strikingly inventive scenic and light design and William Georges' sound design seamlessly propelling the dozen different scenes and locations.

While I wish the two leads (and by extension, Benitz) would have punched up the denouement's brutality—it feels more ho-hum than horrifying here—Salk makes the transition from celibate geek to hot piece of ass believable. McKendrick is as convincingly strong in the role of Evelyn as Creamer is blandly sweet and needy as Jenny. Robertson is the least seasoned of the cast members and has some trouble projecting even in the small space, but he is equally comfortable playing both spurned lover and asshole jock.

The Shape of Things at chapman University's Moulton Center Studio Theatre, 1 University Dr., Orange, (714) 997-6812; Thurs.-FRI., NOV. 15-16, 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 N 8 p.m. $5-$15.

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