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Man morphs into mannequin in Neil LaBute's latest.

Long before college frosh conducted navel-gazing group musings, people wondered about Art and Love. But the scribes committed to exploring these venerable themes today tend to be of the glossy Nora Ephron ilk (cue the Gershwin). So it's welcome when a clever misanthrope like Neil LaBute (best known for In the Company of Men, the anti-date movie of 1997) turns the hoary old clichés inside out.

In The Shape of Things, LaBute pits two college students against each other: She, a smug grad student, wants to paint a penis and balls on a statue of God; he, an earnest underclassman, is a rent-a-guard who tries to stop her. Thus do doughy-soft Adam and authoritarian Evelyn (pardon the overreach of biblical proportions) meet in their school's garden, where a statue's genitalia has been prudishly covered up by community do-gooders.

Adam is a bespectacled geek in a brown sports jacket that his mom probably bought him in 10th grade. Still, the predatory Evelyn is attracted to the shy dweeb and paints her phone number on his jacket lining. He walks off in a smitten stupor, dripping latex.

Soon enough, Adam and his graffiti artist are a twosome, despite the havoc she wreaks. She fights with Adam's friend, the pugilistic Phillip, and patronizes Phillip's fiancée, then strolls out with a swirl of her leather coat. Then she goes to work on Adam, Pygmalion-style: encouraging him to style his hair, lose the gut, leave his damn nails alone, and get his nose surgically "shaved." She even replaces his signature brown jacket with a Tommy Hilfiger. She only stops short of drawing balls on him, too, but an insecure Adam is too besotted to protest.

Playwright LaBute, a master at exploring the corrosive nature of relationships, then begins contorting the characters in fiendish ways. So even if you anticipate the cataclysmic surprise that awaits Adam, the deft gamesmanship along the way remains fascinating.

As Evelyn, Tonya Beckman Ross captures the delicate mix of affection and iron-willed control that keeps Adam dancing to her whims. She falters only at the beginning, when she lapses into mugging. Michael Mueller's Adam starts stiffly, but then relaxes splendidly into the role of Eliza to Evelyn's Henry Higgins From Hell.

But Kato Buss virtually steals the show when he is onstage, with his sharp rendering of the comical yet volatile Phillip.

Director Charles Kartali paces the show well, but his major achievement is bringing out LaBute's script, which is layered as densely as baklava.

The final image of the play -- Adam hunched in his old brown jacket, staring at a videotape of himself and Evelyn -- will likely stay with you. He's been branded by more than her phone number and may never be able to disconnect, no matter what she does. That's love, baby.

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