by Michael Bowen & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & H & lt;/span & ow much of who you think you are consists of what you actually believe? Or do you just do what other people want? If you insist that music should be relaxing and that paintings should match the color of your couch, then Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things (at Actors Rep through Oct. 8) isn't your kind of play. But if you like art that challenges your self-perceptions, making you shift uncomfortably in your seat even as you shift your beliefs and reconsider your values, then a LaBute seminar just might be a good elective to fit into your schedule this semester.

Evelyn, a grad student in art, meets and bulldozes a nebbishy undergrad named Adam. She's so in-your-face sexy, he starts inquiring about required heights even before she issues any jumping orders. Then Adam and Evelyn meet his former roommate, a cynical and obnoxious preppie, along with the cynic's fianc & eacute;e, who may be middlebrow but at least she's but properly dressed. Disagreements flare; regrettable things are said; in misguided attempts at reconciling, the couples experiment with new pairings; then distrust pervades every conversation. Pretty soon, they're not having conversations anymore; they're testing each other.

LaBute's play is like the jokey title of a current musical -- I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change -- played not for comedy but in deadly earnest: We could love certain people, we say -- if only. All they'd have to do is change the way they dress, the ideas they have, the values they hold, and their bodies. It's like a makeover show run by Guantanamo interrogators, minus the pedicures. (The CIA doesn't do pedicures. But if they did, they'd be nicer about it than some of LaBute's people are.)

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & n a play about the human body, its contortions and refashionings, Michael Weaver has directed his actors with a strong eye toward how they move through space. Couples flirt around picnic tables, roll around and argue in bed, confront each other in front of works of art -- and all the time, Weaver is making sure that the vulnerabilities and aggressions are maintained.

With its classical columns and porticos, John Hofland's set evokes academia while also pitting antagonists against each other in a circular arena for the exchange of dagger-thrust ideas. Quotations from Shakespeare and this script supply what LaBute's characters pointedly lack: a sense of generosity and compassion, a willingness to accept others as they are. Projected slides sketch in backgrounds; fashion-magazine collages remind us how unquestioningly we're drawn to the shapes of things, their surfaces. Hofland's set heightens the action, making it clear that we're witnessing a play of (sometimes harsh) ideas.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he soul of this show, Evelyn, lacks a soul. Julie M. Zimmer starts out the evening with girlish aggressiveness; you can never quite figure out if Evelyn's eyes are flickering in flirtation or deceit. Beautiful and intriguing, she's the spirit of animosity decked out in pigtails. But Zimmer's performance, while strong, is uneven: A crucial late monologue, with Evelyn at her most supremely confident, felt under-rehearsed and tentative.

People whose affection comes with strings attached are often blinded by their own egotism. LaBute is cautioning us about men who terrorize their girlfriends, about women who impose a few boyfriend-alterations: They look at others and see their own reflections. Evelyn's cagey and brilliant, but she couldn't catch a literary allusion if somebody handed her Desdemona's handkerchief. (In LaBute's English-major world, that's shorthand for "callous, unfeeling bitch.") Zimmer finds glimmers of humanity in some of the concluding scenes, however, triumphing over the largely misogynistic characterization that the playwright framed her with.

Despite all the moral ugliness, it's surprising how funny this play is in performance. A play about distrust, jealousy and manipulation isn't likely to be soothing. And more than most contemporary plays, The Shape of Things will have you shifting uncomfortably and looking sideways to check how others are reacting. The shifts from violence to comedy are sudden: At one point, Evelyn is rolling around in satin sheets with her lover, chatting about how the only way to help Phil would be to stick a knife through his throat. Adam's rejoinder -- "I'm glad I don't have a pet rabbit or anything right now" -- got nervous giggles.

Evan Hernandez at first plays Adam, appropriately, as a bit of a nerd: fists on hips, exasperated by the perkiness of this strange artiste. Hernandez, like his character, can surprise with sudden wisecracks and self-assertions: He's not simply a pushover. It's a winning performance, even if the tragic moments in Adam's story-arc were less convincing.

It's a little difficult to accept Caryn Hoaglund as Jenny, the middlebrow fianc & eacute;e with her mind buried in fashion magazines; she's too intelligent an actress for that. Early on, she clearly outlines her discomfort with Phil; a late-scene exit after an emotional rejection, full of fluttering hands and repressed hurt, was one of the evening's best moments.

During one argument (is it art or is it vandalism?), the point is made that Phillip (Ken Urso, appropriately slimy as a preppie slimeball) can't stand to lose an argument. We recognize the type: the domineering male who regards every conversation, especially with women, as a competition to be won. Playing an ugly character, Urso still finds the intelligence and insecurity.

But LaBute has pulled a gender-bender on us, too: In this play, it's not only the men who can't stand to lose an argument. In LaBute's world, there's a whole lot of destructive egotism. That's just the way things shape up.

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